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Portraits of two women. On the left, a woman with short dark hair. She smiles and wears and grey jacket and top with a long beaded necklace. On the right, a woman with short blond hair. She smiles and wears a black v neck top.

Left, Leanne Manthorpe and right, Susan Baird, members of the Australian Government Style Manual team. Image: supplied.

By Paul Anderson

Note: The digital edition of the Australian Government Style Manual (colloquially, “the seventh edition”) is referred to herein as the Style Manual.

Australian public servants Leanne Manthorpe and Susan Baird were our guest co-presenters for an online presentation hosted by EdNSW on 16 May 2023. Leanne is an editor and professional member of IPEd; Susan’s qualifications are many and include library and information management. This was a popular event with over 100 registrants.

Bringing you up to date
The Style Manual went live in September 2020 and the number of website users has steadily grown since. The average number of unique users has climbed from approximately 1,500 per work day in December 2020 to just under 4,000 in May 2023.

“It’s free and we get a lot of positive feedback about being able to access it online,” Leanne commented.

The manual has a new home: originally an initiative of the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), it is now a responsibility of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). Together, Leanne (Supervising Editor) and Susan (Project Officer) are the current, full-time Style Manual team.

It’s important to keep in mind that the manual’s content is still developing. This is the main reason why a hard copy version is not an option at present. “It’s simply not ready to print [as it would be] out of date almost immediately,” Leanne said.

The DTA had “a relatively small budget” to deliver a “digital first” manual that “met the needs of the Australian government,” Leanne explained. She is “very proud of the quality of the product that the project team in DTA and the content partner Ethos CRS … delivered in that timeframe” [written and published within 12 months].

“The manual was and, for the most part, remains a minimum viable product (or MVP)”, a term that Leanne went on to define. The intent was always for the manual “to be iterated and improved after going live”.

Leanne and Susan’s presentation was an open and full overview that brought us up to date. It was a testament both to the rigour of what is evidently a highly collaborative process – how credible guidance is developed to improve content – and to their colossal workload and professional diligence. The governance framework, for example, has three pillars with – as Susan stressed – the Working Group being the primary consultative forum (see image below). All substantial changes to the manual are first sent to the Working Group for comment and then to the Governance Board for final approval.

A graphic demonstrating the governance framework for the Australian Government Style Manual.

The governance framework has three pillars. Image: Susan Baird and Leanne Manthorpe.

Priority works: Expert reviews and the Style Manual newsletter
The DTA commissioned 10 expert reviews in 2020 and some of this content remains on the to-do list. “Not all the reviews could be addressed before the manual went live,” Leanne explained. “There is currently a backlog … for [60 of the 151 pages] in the manual,” and this is her priority work.

“When I incorporate the reviews, I also take the opportunity to bring in relevant user feedback and I apply some editorial judgement to move a page beyond MVP, and this can be a [necessarily] slow process.” Leanne is, for example, currently incorporating 269 substantive comments on proposed changes to the dates and time webpage.

In addition, “three small contracts” for specific subject matter expertise were awarded last year and are “making a huge difference” according to Leanne. These are with: Intopia, a W3C accredited firm, for accessibility (WCAG) advice; Dr Amanda Laugesen, Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, for advice on language and corpus data; and Elizabeth Manning Murphy and Associates for editorial advice.

Susan manages the Style Manual newsletter and described it as “our main means of having a relationship with our users”. It’s a cross-section of hot topics and is also free. The newsletter is distributed by email monthly – you can subscribe to it from the sign-up form at the bottom of the manual’s homepage. You can also find out more on the Blog and Changelog webpages.

How you can be helpful and contribute
Leanne and Susan would like to hear your ideas about the Style Manual. Please use the feedback form at the bottom of each webpage and identify yourself. IPEd members were encouraged to consider writing (or pitching) guest articles for the newsletter.

“By all means question the content”, Leanne said, but – most important of all – be kind.

Access to the recording of the presentation will be available to purchase via the IPEd events page (or free if you paid to attend).