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Guidance on drafting and presentation of reports

“To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points...Let us not shrink from the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational...The saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.”
[Winston Churchill in a memo to his staff entitled ‘Brevity’, 9 August 1940]

 

 

 In 2008 more explicit guidelines/protocols were developed for authors and presenters of reports submitted to Council in order to respond to the request from members that agenda papers should:

(a) summarise the main points, retaining a sharp focus and avoiding extraneous detail;
(b) avoid (or explain) higher education jargon and acronyms;
(c) address the needs of non-specialist members, especially in technical areas such as finance/accounting;
(d) set out the various different options and risks that were considered before bringing forward a 
     recommendation;
(e) indicate the author (normally the person with responsibility and authority for the matter in hand).

In addition to these specific points raised by Council members, the following more general guidelines were also compiled to assist the authors of papers and committee reports, in the hope that more streamlined reports will improve the quality of discussion and decision-making in the governance of the University.  The guidelines have now been updated to incorporate further comments from Council members that arose during the review of corporate governance in 2010.

1 Structure of papers

In general, reports should be concise as possible, and have a clear structure or else issues and recommendations may become lost in the main body of the text.  Too much detail can swamp the reader and the judicious use of appendices is preferable to extensive papers.  When drafting a paper it is useful to bear in mind that it is likely to be only one among many papers on the agenda of a higher committee such as Council.  Succinctness is therefore essential - even if the report in question is the culmination of a long period of work by yourself or a committee, you should not seek to demonstrate this through verbiage!  Most readers of the report will not want to know everything and will be content (if not relieved) to have just the basic facts of "what's the problem and how can we solve it?"

As a starting point, you should be clear about the purpose of the paper. Is it:

(a) to provide information?
(b) to make a report on a completed course of action?
(c) to make recommendations on policy or a course of action?
(d) to put forward ideas and proposals in preparation for discussion?

Secondly, bear in mind for whom the paper is intended as this should help you to decide on the tone, content and level of detail required.

Once clear in your own mind about the objective and the target audience of the paper, you should find it easier to decide on an appropriate structure. You may find the following helpful as a simple structure to follow:

Beginning:  an introduction setting out the purpose of the paper and, if relevant, the consultative route it has followed in reaching this point (broad timescales are generally more useful than full details of every twist and turn)

Middle:  the background, including new information, problems identified, facts gathered (in a logical order, briefly in sub-paragraphs with headings if helpful) and, where necessary, the arguments for and against different courses of action/options/recommendations.

End:  The conclusion, including next steps in the form of recommendations for action and likely resource implications (in certain papers, especially policy papers, you should also outline the key risks associated with the recommendations – see section 3 below).

Throughout the paper you should strive to be:

  • accurate
  • logical
  • relevant
  • clear and concise

A model template for committee reports can be found here for reference:  Committee report template (MS Word , 26kb)

2 Cover-sheets  

Given the large number of papers that normally make up the agenda for bodies such as Senate, Council and the higher-level committees, they must be prefaced by a synopsising one-page cover-sheet that provides an instant overview of their content. The cover-sheet should comprise a brief summary of the paper in 1-2 paragraphs, the recommended actions and, where relevant, the risks and resource implications. When drafting this summary on the cover-sheet, you should draw out the key points and main issues/risks as sharply as possible in order to focus and guide the discussion at the meeting.  A description of the structure of the paper is not sufficient: the reader must be able to grasp the gist of the paper from the cover-sheet.

A model template for a cover-sheet can be found here for reference:   Cover sheet template (MS Word , 28kb)

3 Policy papers

If the report you are drafting proposes either a new University policy or an amendment to existing policy, we would recommend that, in addition to the above proposed structure and considerations, the report also seeks to answer some of the following key questions:

  • How does the policy fit with University priorities and objectives (e.g. as expressed in the University Plan and associated strategies)?
  • What are the costs/benefits of different options?
  • What are the needs and views of those the policy seeks to affect? What consultation has been undertaken?
  • What is the impact, if any, on other existing policies?
  • What is the impact, if any, on groups protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010?  Has the required equality impact assessment (EQIA) been undertaken and fully documented?1
  • What are the key risks associated with the policy and how is it proposed that they be managed?
  • How/when should the policy’s effectiveness and contribution to University objectives be reviewed? What evaluation systems and performance targets are needed?
  • On whose authority are the changes to be made? (e.g. Council, Senate, Vice-Chancellor, Privy Council etc.)

If answers are provided to the above questions in your paper, the discussion at higher level will be more focused and decision-making easier and swifter.

4 Oral presentation of reports at meetings

If you are required to attend a Council meeting to present your paper, please bear in mind that normally you will only be allocated a maximum of two minutes to introduce it.  Bearing this short time allocation in mind, you should keep any framing/introductory comments to a minimum in order to allow as much as time as possible for discussion. In other words, do not talk through the detail of the paper but assume that the members have read the paper in advance of the meeting.

With regard to the use of Powerpoint slides or other presentational aids at the meeting, you should consider carefully whether they will actually add value to the presentation of your report.  Remember: you are not delivering a lecture or seminar paper but asking a group of busy, time-constrained people to consider the key issues on a certain topic and, on the basis of this consideration, to make informed, risk-aware decisions that further the University's development.

____________________
1Under the terms of the Equality Act 2010, people are protected from discrimination on the basis of the following "protected characteristics": disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race (which includes ethnic or national origin, colour and nationality), religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.  Guidance on equality impact assessment is provided by the Equality and Diversity Office - see http://www.york.ac.uk/admin/eo/EQIA.htm

September 2010

PHILIP EVANS
University Governance Officer