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Guest post: Reducing guidance about school procurement

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At the beginning of the year we asked the content design community if they had any examples of best practice that they could share, to help other teams see how they might also make improvements to their content. This post is from Alex Knights at the Department for Education (DfE).

Last year, I was 1 of 2 editors from the Department for Education’s Digital Communication Team who worked with 3 policy colleagues to improve our guidance on buying for schools – otherwise known as ‘school procurement’.

Our aim was to produce a step-by-step guide for school business managers. It would contain all the necessary steps to buy what you need for your school and follow the law. It would be easy to read. It would be concise.
Here’s how we got fewer words in front of more users, and some lessons we learned along the way.

Identifying the project

Our school procurement guidance was split across a number of separate PDFs across a number of web pages. These PDFs very often covered a part of the process, and it was difficult to see how they all fitted together. There were a lot of them.

In fact, after auditing the content, I found that over time we had accumulated 25 web pages, 57 attachments, 226 PDF pages and over 63,000 words. Procurement can be a complex process, but reading our guidance shouldn’t be!

Working with the policy team

Gaining and maintaining the confidence of a policy team is vital for the success of a large content development project. Our 3 policy contacts were each located in a different place – we found meeting them in person was much better for establishing a rapport than our initial phone calls.

To ensure accuracy, the policy team suggested updating the existing guidance first so that we could develop new guidance from that. We explained that it would be more effective for us to spend time drafting new, accurate, web-optimised content based on a user need, rather than updating content that we’d then have to redraft anyway.

At one point we showed the team our list of all the existing pages of procurement guidance, many with high word counts and low pageviews. Showing them the problem in this way seemed to be far more persuasive than telling them the benefits of HTML over PDFs.


Showing the thing

The GOV.UK content team at GDS recently published a useful piece on creating a prototype of complex content to show what’s possible and to build understanding and confidence. I think showing something early is a good recommendation, but one that needs a careful approach.

We showed the team an early draft of a section of content to give them an idea of our approach but they were concerned about missing information in the draft and the order of the content.

As content designers, we knew that we would transform this draft in Word into clear and user-friendly content on GOV.UK, but to the policy team it looked confusing.

It was a precarious moment, but, fortunately, one that led to a very helpful discussion about the structure.

Planning a structure

Before the drafting stage, one of our team had run a card-sorting exercise with the policy team to identify the steps in the school procurement process. From that, we had established that there are 4 separate ‘routes’ to buying something for a school - some more complex than others.

We had a lot of discussion with the team about the order of things, and quite a lot of shuffling the content one way and back the other way. Perhaps this was inevitable, as a number of steps in the procurement process can run at the same time.

What I learned is that it saves time and effort to work closely with the policy team in the early stages to share knowledge and agree an outline structure. Better to get things straight at the start than go round in circles later on.

Staying flexible

There are also advantages to remaining flexible about how to present the content.

We knew that each of the 4 procurement routes had certain elements in common (such as planning and contract management). But, before we’d started drafting, we weren’t sure of the most appropriate format for the content. Would it work best as 4 separate detailed guides or as one manual?

We started by drafting the most complex procurement route from start to finish, and then getting feedback from the team.
At that point, it was much clearer that we could treat the start and finish of each procurement route in the same way, and that a manual was better suited to this approach.

Have a look at the buying for schools manual and see what you think.

Publishing and reviewing

We launched the manual at the start of February 2016, having successfully reduced our guidance by nearly 50,000 words.
And the happy ending is that, comparing February 2015 to February 2016 in Google Analytics, our unique pageviews have increased by over 4 times. We also checked the Feedback Explorer (FeedEx) tool over the weeks that followed and found that we’ve had no comments from users telling us that they’re having problems or that things are missing.

We know that our content development hasn’t ended at this publication. There’ll be plenty more to do as we continue to monitor the content’s performance, and test and refine it with user feedback.

If your department or agency has any content improvement projects that you'd like to share on this blog, leave us a comment to get in touch.

Alex Knights is a Senior Digital Content Editor at the Department for Education.

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