Docs Italia, simpler documents for a simpler Public Administration

A single platform for all administrations: changing language and communication within the bureaucracy

by Lorenzo Fabbri and Francesco Zaia

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano

Simple administrative language is a valuable tool for making relationships with citizens transparent and straightforward and its use has been encouraged by various government initiatives in both Italy and abroad (for example, the 2010 American Plain Writing Act). The simplicity of language is also vital to making public services more effective and inclusive. This has been the focus of the Digital Transformation Team through projects such as Docs Italia and Designers Italia.

In our March blog post, in which we introduced Docs Italia for the first time, we gave ourselves the following goal:

To change the language through which guidelines and documentation regarding Public Administration projects are built.

In recent months, Docs Italia has accomplished this goal. It now hosts the three-year plan for information technology in public administration, the public service design guidelines, as well as various consultation processes like this one relating to open source in Public Administration. Docs Italia has become the national platform for governing digital transformation, as provided for in Article 18 of the CAD (Digital Administration Code). Now we are ready to take on an even bigger challenge. That is:

To contribute, in a tangible way, towards the simplification of Public Administration documents and, more generally, the simplification of their content.

This challenge has both a technological component (the way in which documents are published) and a linguistic component (the way in which documents are written). These two components are inextricably linked and so we will address them here together. The challenge we face is the same challenge recently addressed by the British government in a blog post explaining the serious limitations of one of the most commonly used administrative document format: PDF.

The excessive use of PDF is a big issue: content is difficult to find; the format is characterized by poor readability (especially on smartphones); information is often out of context; the relationship between content and documents is not explicit. Furthermore, it is marked by poor accessibility, poor updatability and, last but not least, it makes difficult, if not impossible, obtaining feedback and statistics regarding the use of these documents.

After the progress made in March, we will now present some new, additional features of Docs Italia that will help us to achieve our new target. Some features have only been online a few days, others are scheduled to come online in the next few weeks, as indicated by the public roadmap.

The new features are as follows:

  • Improved document legibility: a new navigation interface, a new typographic style better suited for longer texts (which we would like to propose adding to the public service design guidelines), an intervention on content design to better represent features like citations, captions, text boxes and other paratext components.
A document in the new version of Docs italia. Documents are now easier to read.
  • A simplified publication process. The documents on Docs Italia use a version control system (described here) to keep track of changes made to content over time. To prevent this feature from complicating the publication process, we have also introduced standard templates and a converter.
The document converter that enables documents created in Microsoft Word or Google Docs to be published on Docs Italia through the use of our templates.
  • An improved consultation process, to make it easier for readers, especially citizens, to comment on the published documents.
  • The possibility for each administration to create its own dedicated section within Docs Italia. Institutions will thus be able to publish all their documents while maintaining clear indication of authorship.
  • An improved search function within documents and between documents. As the number of documents on the platform grows, the ability to search for content becomes increasingly important. We want to offer a modern search system, complete with autocomplete, filtering and content sorting functions.

These new features come with a set of tools and actions that simplify the language of the Public Administration. These were developed earlier this year and were presented in the following posts:

They can be grouped into three categories:

Content guidelines

We recently released a new version of the content management guidelines for Public Administration websites and applications. The guidelines establish the criteria for design, management (licenses, releases, etc.), writing, revision and testing of contents in compliance with the objectives of effectiveness, simplicity, accessibility and inclusion. One point of focus concerns the documents themselves and is an opportunity to encourage the use of html as a standard as well as identifying some best practices for managing pdf formatting.
The Public Administration’s language guidelines

A content management kit

We have also created a kit for managing the content of Public Administration websites. The kit contains operational tools for managing content migration, analyzing and simplifying contents, a language guide and a set of templates for writing documents.
The content management kit
The Public Administration language guide

The development of standard components and processes for organizing content within Public Administration services

This process of development includes everything Designers Italia has produced regarding the language used by services (components and patterns) as well as two vertical projects dedicated to setting standards for school and municipal websites.

Caption: Prototype of a school site (1) in which posts are approved by SPID (2), created in html format (3–5), can receive feedback (6) and be saved as favorites (7). If necessary, the posts can be saved, archived or printed in PDF (8).

We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but the first testing phase involving a significant number of projects has ended. We are now ready to begin a new phase in which the methodologies, tools and components we’ve developed can be widely adopted by the Italian Public Administration.