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Appendix: Public Policy Writing for the Web

Key Concept

  • Adapting public policy information to the Web

In the 1980s with the gradual uptake of e-mail, chat, file or document transfer, and other text-processing applications, the Internet network became a means of everyday communication. In the mid-1990s, while use of e-mail and other applications grew, the information-processing application World Wide Web pushed the Internet into the background where it became infrastructure with the popular Web as its interface. The Web became the network, in effect. A new genre, the website or the web (lower case ‘w’) emerged to frame developments in online communication. Multimedia, connectivity, and interactivity became norms for content. Now in the early 2000s, integrated media and social networking are again changing the norms for content while cellular telephone technology is widening network access. The practical lesson to draw from this history? Communicators, stay tuned. Web writing techniques change in tandem with an evolving communication technology and expanding global network. Continued learning is the best practice.

This purpose of this appendix is to help you intelligently adapt the craft of public policy writing to Web conditions. E-mail is discussed elsewhere. Here, the focus is the public policy website. Emphasis is on writing clear text for websites. Much more could be said about writing for the Web than this appendix will attempt. Commentary, scholarship, and instruction on the topic have been lively since the 1990s. This appendix aims to offer direction and heuristics or conceptual tools for presenting public policy information on the Web. This appendix also identifies resources for skill development in specific Web writing practices.

Case

The Employee Free Choice Act also known as the Card Check Bill was passed by the House but not voted on in the Senate in 2008. It was reintroduced in 2009 “to amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes” (H.R.1409 and S. 560). Big labor unions including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions, pushed Congress to approve the legislation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a federation representing 3 million businesses as well as state and local chambers, industry associations in the United States and 112 American chambers in other countries, pushed Congress to oppose it.

The AFL-CIO (http://www.aflcio.org) and the U.S. Chamber (http://www.uschamber.com) used their websites for activism to create awareness and mobilize action. In activist terms, creation of awareness means communicating an interest in a problem or a position regarding it intentionally to persuade others to share the interest or agree with the position. Mobilization means organizing interested people to act or react in order to influence public policy.

In this case, the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber aggregated representations of the subject and capabilities for expressing opinion on their websites. Options included:

  • e-mail for action alerts or announcements calling on interested people to contact Congress members and newspaper editors using content provided in the alert (“canned” letters to legislators and “astroturf” to editors)
  • podcasts or pre-recorded audio material
  • videos or pre-recorded multimedia material
  • blogs or weblogs, shared online journals maintained by individuals or organizations for public posting
  • wikis or collections of web pages to which anyone with access can contribute or modify content.

While debate continued, people interested in knowing the AFL-CIO’s or the U.S. Chamber’s position on the Employee Free Choice Act or in joining their advocacy could do so through links to these options on their websites. After debate and action, the content might or might not be accessible in archives linked to the website. That public record depends on voluntary organizational policies for retaining content.

What This Case Shows

The Web now serves as one of many competing platforms where policy agendas are enacted and policy work is conducted. The Web offers advantages of transmission speed, information delivery to local and global users, low publishing costs, and 24-hour access. In this case, the purpose was advocacy.

More broadly, this case illustrates now common practices of integrating many communication options with websites, not only for advocacy purposes. Other nonprofit organizational as well as governmental websites show other purposes. Examples include:

Across the spectrum of policy work settings, writers need to learn practices of creating textual content for websites.

The Web alters writing practice, but it does not invalidate the standards for writing in the cultural context. Normative features of Web content must accommodate normative qualities of public policy information. For effectiveness, a Web communication must fit the culture of public policymaking. Like much else in policymaking, the fit might be messy. You are reintroduced to cultural expectations previously discussed (checklists, Communicating in the Policy Process) and offered resources for thoughtfully adapting them to Web writing conditions, below.

Public policy communication addresses a specific audience about a specific problem.

The touchstones for communicating with actors in a policy process are your definition of a problem relative to others and your role relative to other actors’ roles (chapter 3). Choices about Web use start with those touchstones. The complexity of public policy audiences, which involve multiple interests and diverse role-players, calls for special consideration in content creation. Here’s a good general principle for public policy Web communicators to follow: assume that Web communication is one-to-many, and learn all you can about your actual as well as potential audience(s).

Generally, Web writing guides do not offer methods of complexity management and multidimensional audience analysis that meet the demands of public policy writing. A notable exception is the chapter on government websites in the specialized guide Writing for Government (Allison and Williams). Depending on your circumstances and research ability, another might be Webcontent.gov’s “Knowing Your Audience and Doing Market Research” (http://www.usa.gov/webcontent/improving/evaluating/audience.shtml).

Here’s a simple heuristic for thinking about one-to-many public policy communication on the Web. Imagine a website as a public space, perhaps a forum, a marketplace, or a commons. The space contains objects or bits of varied kinds of stuff. In this public space people are freely coming and going, noticing some objects but not noticing others, pausing to consider an object or hurrying past it, putting stuff in and taking stuff out of baskets, and so forth. Imagine the people as actors or role-players in the policy process of concern to you. The objects are bits of your intended content.

Look closer at the scene. What’s happening? What types of actors or role-players are present? Why are they here? Who’s doing what? What abilities do they have? Do all have the same abilities? Which actors are putting bits in their baskets? Which bits? What do you want the actors to do with the bits?

When you know your purpose, whether it is advocacy, analysis, public engagement, or another intention, conceive your audience(s) to anticipate their need(s), purpose(s), and actions of engaging the content. Narrative and dramatic imagination aids the practice of information design for Web users. Information design is the skill of preparing information so that people can use it efficiently and effectively.

To translate this scene to an information design for a public policy website, work from these assumptions:

  • a site has multiple users who have diverse purposes
  • a site has multiple components of content expressed in varied information types
  • components are organized into a site index or map of content for multiple users and diverse purposes
  • a site has multiple functions
  • functions are anticipated in a site navigation plan
  • a site is planned as a whole before individual components are planned
  • individual components are “chunked” or constructed with a focus local to that component
  • individual components are explicitly labeled or captioned
  • a site as a whole and individual components meet standards for usability including clarity and accessibility (discussed in more detail below)

Public policy communication has a purpose related to a specific policy action

Each action in a policy cycle requires information created by both governmental and nongovernmental actors (cultural context, Communicating). For policy professionals in United States federal government, the institutional workplace significantly influences choices about Web use. Executive branch departments and agencies use the network extensively for informing and interacting with the public and for administrative functions. Presently, e-government (Conclusion) is practiced mostly by administrative departments, agencies, and offices of the executive branch. The legislative and judicial branches use the Web for fewer purposes. Congressional and Supreme Court offices use the Web primarily for public information and access to public records.

In government settings, accountability demands that a communication have an identifiable purpose that is disclosed. Nonprofit organizations and individual citizens have more latitude. For these actors, public disclosure and other aspects of accountability might be voluntary rather than obligatory. Writers who want more information on voluntary self-regulation might consult the guidance on public disclosure in “Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice” developed by Independent Sector, a nonpartisan coalition of nonprofit organizations (http://www.independentsector.org/panel/main.htm).

Public policy communication represents authority accurately.

Credible policy communications identify their role in the policy process. Role identification shows the kind of power the communication represents. Roles may be evident in the presenting individual’s or group’s title (for example, Senator X or Office of the Governor) or by reference in the content (for example, Jane Y and other union members).

Also, a document’s origination and, if appropriate, the writers’ names should be identified. Contact information must be provided. These attributions give credibility because they enable verification. Writers who want to know more about credibility in Web communications might consult the research-based “Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility” (http://credibility.stanford.edu/guidelines) developed by Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab (http://captology.stanford.edu).

Public policy communications use appropriate form and content

Appropriateness of form starts with the writer’s choice of a genre (General Method, Communicating). Genre choices in the Web environment require careful thought. As the case of AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce communication discussed earlier in this chapter shows, websites now creatively meld many communication functions and forms. Caution should accompany creativity, however. Options might be wasted if users cannot access them. Accessibility is discussed later in this appendix.

Appropriate content choices start with the writer’s purpose and the audience’s purpose (General Method). In the cultural context, rights and responsibilities are associated with information’s creation and use. Generally, for nongovernmental policy actors in the United States, information is expression and free speech is a right with legal constraints. As illustration, see commentary on “Free Speech Rights of Nonprofits” on the watchdog group OMBWatch’s website (http://ombwatch.org). For actors in government, information is a public trust. More stringent legal constraints apply to government sources than to others. For illustration by one federal government executive department, see the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s “Policies and Links,” “FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), and “Information Quality” in small print at the bottom of the department website’s homepage (http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome).

Writers who want to learn more about information rights and responsibilities in democracy, particularly about the freedom of information, might consult “Federal Open Government Guide” (http://www.rcfp.org/fogg) developed by the advocacy group The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press (http://www.rcfp.org/foia).

Public policy communication is designed for use.

Policy information is expected to be useful. In the cultural context of policymaking, that means content that is relevant for a purpose and accountable (General Method). Content is also expected to meet usability standards for public information including clarity and accessibility.

Clarity is associated with principles of “plain language” use in government and legal communications. Plain language use in United States federal government administrative agency documents was mandated by executive order in 1998. Recent legislation, the Plain Writing Act of 2009 (Senate Bill 574) and the Plain Language Act of 2009 (House of Representatives Bill 946), extended the mandate.

Communicators who want to know more about plain language use might consult Federal Plain Language Guidelines (http://plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/TOC.cfm).These guidelines are produced and frequently updated by the Plain Language Action and Information Network of United States (primarily federal) government employees. Links on this group’s homepage (http://plainlanguage.gov) take you to resources for teaching, training, and learning.

Website Accessibility

Accessibility is associated primarily with making website content available to users with physical impairments or difficulty in seeing, hearing, or making precise movements; individuals with limited English proficiency; elderly users, and others with special needs. Also, accessibility includes serving a broad range of visitors to websites. Many people in the United States and elsewhere do not use advanced capabilities of the technology because they have lower connection speed, screen resolution, or browser limitations. The cost of network connection time may be a limiting factor, too.

Writers who want to learn more about making Web content accessible might consult the following guidelines developed by government agencies and the Internet community:

Summary and Looking Forward

From now on, public policy communicators’ choice will likely be not whether to use the Web but rather how to use it. Know-how involves judgment and skill. Discussion in this appendix informs judgment from historical and cultural perspectives. To develop needed skills, writers can learn by observing and practicing. Observe the variety of public policy websites. Practice recommended Web writing techniques. Appendix B provides an opportunity for practice.

References

Allison, Libby and Miriam F. Williams (2008). “Government Websites” in Writing for the Government, 153-202. Pearson and Longman.

U.S. House of Representatives. 111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 946 Plain Language Act of 2009. ONLINE: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:H.R.946: [29 March 2009]

U.S. Senate. 111th Congress, 1st session. S. 579 Plain Writing Act of 2009. ONLINE: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:S.574: [29 March 2009]

 

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