How To Communicate Policies In Writing

A team at the Ministry of Health reveals how they put together The White Paper on Healthier SG from the input and contributions of various parties.
A note with a reminder to keep writing succinct and straightforward.
A note with a reminder to keep writing succinct and straightforward.

How do you crunch hundreds of suggestions and input from various stakeholders into a policy document that’s clear and concise? That was one of the challenges for the team at the Ministry of Health (MOH) behind the Healthier SG White Paper.

To craft the Executive Summary, for example, the team had to summarise six chapters into one while ensuring they did not “simply regurgitate” what had already been said, and chose the most important points to express.  

Healthier SG is a move towards preventive care, where residents have customised health plans and a preferred GP clinic to support their health needs throughout life. 

Putting together the White Paper required crystallising the main ideas and objectives for something that may look different to many people.

When you start putting the ideas in writing, you quickly learn that there are things you don’t have answers to (yet), and everyone has a different view of what the ‘elephant’ looks like.

Senior Health Policy Analyst (Healthcare Finance) Gabriel Chua explained: “When you start putting the ideas in writing, you quickly learn that there are things you don’t have answers to (yet), and everyone has a different view of what the ‘elephant’ looks like.”

“The more questions were asked, the clearer we got about our ideas and main objectives.”

What Is a White Paper?

A White Paper is a formal document to explain or discuss policy matters. The term “White Paper” originated from Britain. In Singapore, White Papers have been produced to discuss the national response to COVID-19, women’s development in Singapore, having a central bank digital currency, and more.

Other government documents include:

  • Green Paper: a preliminary discussion document, issued before a policy is formed
  • Blue Book: official reports or publications

Creating a Consistent Tone

Six officers formed the core writing team for the Healthier SG White Paper, with each assigned to different chapters. Among them, two officers maintained an overview of the entire writing process, keeping track of the multiple edits and comments, and liaising with external vendors for design and copyediting.

Each chapter was written in consultation with key stakeholders. Many others across the MOH also contributed by providing relevant content, fact-checking and giving feedback on how the proposals could be better presented.

“We had almost the entire MOH working on this,” said Ms Winnie Tiong, Senior Manager (Population Health Planning Office).

Completed chapters were “continually circulated” so that the other chapter writers could adjust their tone and style to match. The Ministry’s Communications and Engagement division also scrubbed through the paper to ensure that the tone was consistent throughout.

Revisions for Easier Reading

Bosses at different levels directly edited the paper to simplify and shorten it. Winnie said: “They constantly reminded us to reduce the corporate speak and avoid internal policy terms, and helped us to strike a balance between technicality and readability.”

The team also invited colleagues who were less familiar with the content to read through the paper and suggest how the information could be better relayed.

Those who read the paper with “fresher eyes” could spot where there was a lack of consistency, said Ms Aileen Lim, Manager (Primary and Community Care). “For example, we had initially used phrases like ‘key features’ and ‘key elements’ interchangeably, but these were pointed out by our colleagues.”

Reduce the corporate speak and avoid internal policy terms to strike a balance between technicality and readability.

Constant Communication

To produce the final document of The White Paper on Healthier SG, the writing team worked with a team of designers from MOH Holdings.

“A useful lesson we learnt was to maintain constant communication,” said Aileen.

There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Be clear about any design requirements as soon as possible, so all parties can be in sync on the overall look and feel of the White Paper.
  2. Be upfront and honest about time constraints.

As the publishing deadline drew closer, communication became even more crucial. The writing team received several more rounds of edits. Both the writing and designing team kept one another updated on the latest edits daily.

A Writing Checklist:

  1. Always bear in mind who your audience is.
  2. Be succinct and clear; avoid using jargon and overly long sentences.
  3. Break up information so it is easier for readers to digest. Where possible, use pictures and charts to present information.
  4. Ask colleagues who are less familiar with the policy content for feedback and suggestions.
  5. Regularly fact-check to ensure information and statistics are up to date.
  6. Keep track of all references or source material used.

TIP: Put yourselves in the shoes of a family member unfamiliar with the subject, and ask if he/she would be able to understand what you’ve written!

Maintain constant communication

What’s Next

As policies evolve, discussions will continue as more stakeholders are consulted and new information is gathered.

As for the questions or gaps that emerged in the process of writing, Gabriel explained: “What we choose to put down in writing reveals our convictions. But what is not said matters just as much, if not more.”

He added: “In a White Paper, where the intent is to allow for debate and to bring the conversation to a wider audience, what is not said creates that space for further discussion, questions, and new ideas.”

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    Jun 9, 2023
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Ryan Ong
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