Template tantrum

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

5th September 2013:

I hate templates.

I’m not talking about the sort of template you get from within a word processing package or the header that sits on top of your letter to a client. I’m also not talking about forms given to clients (although an argument could be made about them too).

On the contrary, I’m talking about the local authority template with boxes to complete, vague headings and italic writing that explains what is meant to go into each box.

There are three reasons that I hate templates:

1)      People complete them

There is no template in the world that can be accurately deployed for every situation. Nonetheless, as soon as you ask someone to complete a template you can guarantee that they will try their best to find something to write into every box. This is just one example of the ‘compliance culture’ that can often be a real problem for local authorities.

2)      The sum of a template is definitely less than the sum of its parts

The idea of a template is to ensure comprehensiveness. We don’t want to miss anything and therefore we design an approach that ensures that every officer completing it can’t miss the things we expect them to tell us.

However, what usually happens is that by asking officers to complete a number of sections independently you get answers to each of your questions but no overall sense of what is trying to be achieved. The template encourages managers to not think about what they want to communicate but instead to focus on answering a series of, usually fairly general, questions.

What you end up with is usually fairly incomprehensible.

3)      Templates are always badly formatted

I know this sounds a little petty and compared to complaints 1 and 2 it really is. However, how many times have you been asked to complete a template only to find out that the word boxes don’t work when spread over more than one page, the document won’t let you write in some sections and the fonts are unusable? I find filling in templates incredibly frustrating.

So, what would I do to replace the templates?

I work from the theory that a template is provided to officers for one of three reasons;

1)      Because we don’t trust them to provide all of the necessary information.

2)      To give people an aide memoir of information required so they don’t forget anything and

3)      Because we’re not sure managers know what to do.

My solution is fairly simple; stop designing templates. Instead, send the officer who needs to complete the template a blank sheet of paper (well, maybe an e-mail or IM) asking them to detail whatever it is they need, to do so simply so that everyone can understand and to include all relevant information they think we might need.

And then trust them to deliver.

Without the template people would not be constrained by the well-meaning text boxes of cleverly worded italics and instead would be able to provide the information they think is most relevant for the requester. If they need any help to do this then you have all that free time from not designing templates to sit down with them and give them some help.


I hate templates; the sooner we can do away with them the better.

Posted: 5 years 4 weeks ago by Bertie #1227
Bertie's Avatar
I completely understand your frustration with templates, but my old committee officer cap is frustrated that your article doesn't reflect the flip side of the trust issue.

I have regularly and painstakingly helped members draw decisions from poorly produced reports that have hit a committee without the officer responsible being present and without all of the facts required. Sometimes the report is sent back but more often than not it is muddled over to prevent the press picking over the item further.

Another advantage of template reports is that members are also aware of what they should be looking for when making decisions. It is far too easy to forget that members are lay-people, not professionals. There are far too many council decisions that have been successfully challenged for a lack of an equality impact assessment or similar and it can only be surmised that officers have failed their members on those occasions.

Whilst templates rarely fit all situations they do provoke thought on issues that should be considered. They also provide a consistent format for council documents making them more accessible to the public. That is unless your council has truly generated a crap template.

My advice; get hold of your committee section and comms team to address the concerns you have with the template. Otherwise, mock up one that looks the same that you can edit the hell out of and delete everything you honestly don’t need next time you need to write a report.

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