Security, clarity and the style guide
A few weeks ago Sarah Richards and Ben Terrett visited the Government Security Secretariat (GSS) to talk about copywriting and the GOV.UK style guide. We asked Ben Aung from GSS to write about the visit and the work it has inspired.
The Government Security Secretariat within the Cabinet Office sets the security policies for government, these policies cover the how and why of protecting our people, information and buildings. I’ve been a member of the policy team for just over a year and am currently leading a refresh of the catchily-titled HMG Security Policy Framework. This is the body of documents that deals with everything from the type of locks we put on our doors to much broader issues such as counter-terrorism and cyber security.
Our problem was that security policy had become unwieldy. Full of jargon and many hundreds of pages long, it is difficult to interpret and use and therefore not able to do what we wanted it to do. This jarred with our aim of publishing policy that is accessible, supports effective decision-making, that makes it easier for industry to work with government and above all, is clear and straightforward.
The unintended consequences of poorly explained security policy can also cause real problems. It can add cost to ICT, make it difficult for staff to do their jobs or in extreme cases, put people in danger.
Chatting about style
We were really impressed by what GDS achieved with GOV.UK. The Design Principles and Style Guide struck us as something simple and effective that had been created to help people design and build good websites, which could easily be re-used for policy work. In other words, the principles matched our own aspirations for security policy.
We organised a workshop to look at how we could improve things and invited Ben and Sarah from GDS to talk to us about the detail that sits behind their work. It was remarkable to see how much research had gone into what is effectively a short and pithy list of rules.
Sarah pointed us towards the government’s policy of stabilisation in Afghanistan as an example of a hugely complex issue that had been distilled into a single web page, with links leading off to the detail for those who need it. This is the sort of clarity that our team felt was needed in security policy.
We have now started putting together our own set of 10 principles borrowing heavily from GOV.UK. We have realised that our policy is not something that can only be expressed as physical documents or PDFs, but it is a reflexive set of information, which can be presented to people in a multitude of ways.
We plan to start analysing our existing documents, thinking carefully about the target audience and conscious that even deeply technical or specialist subjects should be readable and clear. This will be an ongoing process but we have the ambition to come up with something that can form the backbone of our policy framework for years to come.
Watch this space!