Thursday, September 19, 2013

Can government policy, reports and consultation documents be communicated through animated infographics?

Government reports are often dry - really, really, really dry.

They are also often wordy, complex, long and, due to these properties, largely incomprehensible to the broader community.

Government policy and consultation documents can suffer from similar conditions. They are often quite complex, long and structured in ways that make sense to career bureaucrats but not necessarily to the general public.

Many agencies also dislike this and make all kinds of efforts to provide summaries, to simplify language, use images and charts and use other techniques to spice up these often long and complex government documents.

However at their core, they generally remain documents, words on paper that would be familiar to the scholars of Middle-Ages Europe, to the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and to the many dynasties of the Chinese over the last six thousand years - although they may now be distributed by electronic as well as physical means.

Surely modern society can devise better ways to communicate complex information than relying on an approach that is now around six thousand years old.

And we have - by drawing from techniques that are much older and more resilient in human cultures. Pictures, dance and song.

Now I don't expect governments to communicate their reports, policies and consultation materials entirely through the use of the performing arts. Not all our politicians or public servants are as accomplished singers as, say Chris Emerson, who can be viewed below communicating about government budget reporting and the Charter of Budget Honesty in song with his band Emmo and the Wipeouts on an episode of The Hamster Decides.

However with multimedia and the use of infographics it is now possible to communicate government information in far more engaging and understandable ways than ever before.

This is being done by some agencies already. The Department of Planning and Community Development in Melbourne made a series of animated infographics to communicate material from their consultation, PlanMelbourne (which I've been privileged to work on through Delib Australia).

The use is not yet widespread, with most government reports, consultation documents, policies and other material still released as words on paper - however what if it was.

What if governments mandated that agencies were required to follow a visual first approach for all materials they released to the public, only using words on paper as a secondary technique?

Could agencies rise to the challenge, communicating their material far more succinctly in visual form - a five minute video rather than a 200 page single-spaced, small-type report?

Not possible? Material too complex and long? Too many statistics to cover?

Maybe the examples below might shift a few opinions.

The first example is from the creator of PHD Comics, Jorge Cham. As an internationally renown animator Jorge asked students to describe their thesis in two minutes.

Jorge chose the best descriptions and turned them into animated infographics, such as the one below from Adam Crymble on Big Data and Old History.

Second is an example from Peter Liddicoat, a materials scientist at the University of Sydney and the winner of the Chemistry category in the 'Dance your PHD' competition.

Peter's PHD was on the topic 'Evolution of nanostructural architecture in 700 series aluminium alloys during strengthening by age-hardening and severe plastic deformation' - a wonderfully complex and obscure topic that doesn't seem to naturally lend itself to dance, but somehow works.

What I think these example demonstrate is that there are alternatives ways for government to communicate complex material. They no longer must rely on words on paper.

Certainly bureaucrats can argue that word on paper are easy for them to produce, that they satisfy a substantial proportion of the community and they have a long track record - that 6,000 years of history I mentioned earlier.

They can also argue that there's no silver bullet for communication, no technique that will satisfy 100% of the audience, and that is perfectly true.

However while governments may consider words on paper the default position, the lowest common denominator way of making information available to the public, I think they are often used as an excuse to be lazy and unengaging.

Paper make the lives of public servants and politicians easier. Paper documents are relatively cheap and fast to write, review, approve and distribute - none of which is a benefit to the intended audience and community or improves the outcomes of a consultation.

Mark Twain once said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

For governments words on paper are their long letters - the approach easiest for them, rather than for the recipient, their community or audience.

Agencies can now do better - using images, animations and video to communicate relegating words on paper to a back-up role.

I challenge them to try.

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