How to produce an annual report people will actually read

Why not make your yearly account of what your organisation’s been up to a mini-website, says Simon Busch, complete with video intros rather than a picture of an executive grasping a pen

26 September 2022

Richard Morton, Head of Accessibility at the Cabinet Office tweets 'Want to be really radical? Ditch the PDF annual report and do it as web pages instead. The Centre for Digital Public Services in Wales show how it is possible'
Richard Morton, Head of Accessibility at the Cabinet Office tweeted about our review which led to a spike in website traffic

Annual reports might come around every year but they’re not as much fun as birthdays. CDPS exists to help to bring about bold and lasting digital change in the Welsh public sector. Why not, then, we thought, apply this same transformative spirit to producing our own version of one of these regular accounts of what an organisation has been up to? 

This would be our first annual report. Like many organisations, public or private, we were obliged to produce one. Our remit letter, whose contents CDPS agrees upon with our funders, the Welsh Government, says we need to produce “[a]n annual report at the end of [each] funding period”. 

Make your report digestible 

We decided to split our annual report in half, to make it more digestible. We’d produce an ‘annual review’ – a narrative of how we’d met CDPS’s agreed digital transformation objectives in our first year. Alongside the review, we’d later publish a more formal financial report showing where we’d spent our money. This blog post is about the first part, the narrative review. 

Who, though, would want to read such a review from, so to speak, cover to cover? Not many, we thought, unless it’s your job to scrutinise an organisation’s activities. Most people will want to leap to that part of the review that interests them – Agile skills training, say, or digital inclusion. Yet these sorts of documents, in their traditional, one-big-slab-of-content format, do not make leaping easy. There’s something almost masochistic about them – read this report, if you dare.  

PDFs – retro and nostalgic, but usable? 

By contrast, we wanted our annual review to be as inviting as possible to use. I say ‘use’, rather than ‘read’, for a reason – but I’ll get to that in a bit. To make the review as easy to navigate as possible, the usual format, a PDF, would not do. PDFs are a kind of ‘nostalgic’ format, if you like – the closest you can get, in a digital environment, to a retro weighty paper tome. 

Why not, instead, structure the review using native digital HTML? Why not, in other words, make it a mini-website? So that’s what we did. CDPS’s first annual review starts with a series of plain English links directing people to parts of the content that might be most relevant to them. 

Tim Murray tweets 'a foreword as a video? yes please!'
We received many comments praising the use of multimedia in our review

The tyranny of text 

HTML is one way to make using the document easier. Then there’s that other aspect I referred to earlier, about how you’d consume the review. Why rely upon text? As with the pseudo-paper format of PDF, too much text seems once again to hark back to a pre-digital world when a chunky, unread annual report could double up as a doorstop. 

As a proponent of Agile thinking, CDPS always wants to test assumptions. That also applies to the assumption that text is the best (the most authoritative?) format for an annual report. It seems a dubious proposition, at best, in a multimedia world where people gulp down audio, video and graphics – as well as, sometimes, reading things. 

‘That’s the point about digital’ 

Rather than beginning, then, with a written foreword by a senior executive, possibly topped by an image of them grasping a pen, CDPS’s annual review launches with a video intro. In it, Lee Waters MS, CDPS’s sponsoring minister, delivers a short, passionate monologue about the vital role of digital services – and CDPS – in Wales’s “incredibly turbulent” recent years. 

“From responding to COVID, to helping the most vulnerable in storms, to providing a safe haven for people fleeing war,” Lee says, digital systems have been at the centre. “And that’s the point about digital,” he goes on. “It’s not about computers. It’s about people. It’s not about kit. It’s about culture.”  

Rob Owen-Jones tweets '100% this. Accessible and engaging. Not a pen pic in sight. Da iawn'
A first for an annual review – using real people instead of a pen pic

Traffic payoff 

To reinforce the point about digital’s human face, the review uses video testimony throughout of people from public sector organisations CDPS has worked with in the past year. Another good thing about having all this video to hand? Reusing snippets of it in social media, with a gratifying traffic payoff. 

A web-native layout and multimedia content to balance the text: these were both ways of engaging more people with the annual review. We also needed to make the review fully accessible to people with visual impairments. My colleague Charlotte Giles, who laid out the report for publication, painstakingly tweaked colour contrasts and wrote alternative text on graphics for screen readers to voice. We also, of course, published simultaneously in plain Welsh and plain English, as CDPS does all our content. 

People actually read it 

The accessibility regulations we were following recognise that the public sector sometimes fails to do what it needs to: publish for everyone. That open approach also pays off in a way that few content folk will complain about – a bigger audience! As I say, we never intended many people to read the review from beginning to end. But analytics show that plenty of people did read or watch bits of it. 

A compilation video posted natively to Twitter, for example, got 2,000 views – four times as many as CDPS’s next most viewed video. Also pleasing was the time people spent on page – at an average of about 5 minutes, it showed people were actually reading the content. That’s something of an achievement when attention spans these days are subject to so much competition. 

CDPS might do next year’s annual report differently. This one was intended partly as an experiment. But its lessons are worth repeating:  

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