Australian Bureau of Statistics
1530.0 - ABS Forms Design Standards Manual, 2010
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2010 First Issue
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It is currently ABS policy not to encourage email communication as well as to actively discourage electronic reporting, due to the security issues and the cost to both the data provider and the ABS.
There are, however, a growing number of collections which have approved use of electronic reporting. These email standards and guidelines are to be used only for the purposes of standardising email contact by approved sections of the ABS where the method of receival of data is via the Secure Deposit Box (SDB).
The survey emails should keep the same high standards developed for the Business Survey Letters. In order to uphold these standards, certain issues have to be addressed, to ensure the quality of communication and response rate are not affected by the method of communication.
Due to inherent differences between the mediums of paper letters and emails, there are some main format differences that need to be taken into consideration when adapting survey letters for email communication. The differences mentioned in this section are based on the recommendations made as part of a literature review regarding the current guidelines and standards in e-communication.
Typography and formatting
The layout and format in which the receiver sees the email is extremely important. The email, like letters, must be presented in such a way which will facilitate the reader's ability to comprehend the information with ease, and highlight those issues which must be given priority. The Survey Letter Standards go to great length to ensure that the format is standardised to ensure clear communication and best response. These guidelines include issues such as font, text size, capitalisation, headings, margins, and justification. Another reason for the format guidelines is to ensure uniformity in communication from the ABS.
The recipient's operating system is likely to influence the formatting of the email. Therefore, every effort must be made to ensure the email is received in a similar fashion by all respondents. Because it is unknown whether or not the recipient's operating system will strip off any HTML add-ons, if not completely refuse to open the email, emails should be constructed in plain text format. This format does not include the ability to specify format characteristics such as bolding, italics, underlining, justifications, font size or type, or colour. Similarly, bulleting points cannot be added, but can be constructed by other means within the format.
To ensure the standardisation of the presentation of the email, the text should be forcefully wrapped at a length of 65 characters per line. This restriction on the length will reduce the likelihood that a recipient's operating system will cut off the line shorter than intended. One method of making the line length maximum of 65 characters is to check the content in UltraEdit Text Editor software. Wrapping text at 65 characters can be done in any software that allows the writer to count the characters, however, below are the instructions for forced wrapping in Ultraedit.
Once the content of the email is finalised, paste into UltraEdit. From the Format heading, select Convert Wrap to CR/LFs (see Diagram 1).
Using the radio buttons, select Add Returns at column #: and manually set the right margin to 65 'columns' or characters (see Diagram 2).
Ideally, the length of the email should be such that the content is able to be viewed in a single screen. However, this is not practical when the respondents' display resolution, etc., is unknown. Similar to the equivalent paper version the email should follow current best practice to be as succinct and short as possible. The layout of the email should make good use of white space for scanability to highlight the important issues to the reader, and may also include unformatted headings, if they add value.
All attachments should be sent in a format which is universally accepted. Apart from email types not covered in these standards, respondents who receive emails from the ABS will be those reporting electronically. Because our only electronic mode of data collection is Excel, attachments in this format are acceptable. All other attachments (e.g. additional important information, instructions, separate definitions, etc.) should be in either a Text File (TXT) format or a Portable Document Format (PDF). If in doubt, agree on a suitable attachment format with the respondent before sending. Attachment file size should be kept to a minimum, being mindful of the recipients' time (bigger files take longer to download) and download restrictions (if a download limit is exceeded, there could be a cost to the respondent).
Ideally, attachments should be placed adjacent to the request for information. However, depending on the respondent's email program, the placement of the attachment is not standardised, and will often appear at the end of the email regardless of where it was placed. Therefore, attachments should be placed at the end of the email.
In addition to the actual e-forms, attachments may include explanatory notes or PDFs of the paper form. Information which is essential to participating in the survey should be included in the email, but information which is only of potential interest to the respondent is generally better delivered by directing the respondent to the ABS website.
A Link in the form of a full URL address should be used within emails to facilitate the respondents' access to information, while not unnecessarily extending the length of the email. Links to websites should not be used for essential instructions or information, but rather for extra information which could be useful or interesting to the respondent. Links to websites also facilitate efficient storage and updating of information on websites.
Ideally, URL addresses should be used to guide respondents to the publications their data is contributing to, for example, to direct respondents to Labour Force Statistics the following URL should be provided:<http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs%40.nsf/mf/6202.0>. Full URLs should also be used for the Secure Deposit Box website <https://www6.abs.gov.au/> and the ABS Website <http://www.abs.gov.au/> (included in the tagline). (Note there is an additional 's' in the SDB URL, i.e., https://. This is important as it leads to a lot of provider queries that the SDB is not working.)
The content of the emails should be based on the text composed for the Survey Letter Standards, while keeping in mind the recommendations included in this section. As per the Business Survey Letter guidelines, an example of each type of survey email is included below.
When emailing respondents, ABS staff should ensure that every addressee in the 'To' field is directly involved in the dialogue, or request for information. Emails sent separately to a small number of respondents should primarily use the 'To' field. All addressees in the 'Cc' field should be present in a FYI capacity, and only be included if they are from the same provider organisation. It is important that confidentiality is maintained between respondents, so when bulk emailing information regarding a survey the 'Bcc' field should be used. 'Bcc' can also be used for efficiency reasons, when a separate email for each respondent is not practical. In these cases, it must be acknowledged that the emails will lose value with regards to individualisation, and might result in lower response rates.
People writing emails should make proper use of the subject line. The subject should be concise, descriptive, and meaningful to the recipient. No emails should be sent without a subject line. Subject lines should not be written in all capitals, and should not include exclamation marks or unnecessary complications. The use of terms such as 'Urgent' should be kept to a minimum, so as to preserve their effectiveness. The subject of the email should include "Australian Bureau of Statistics" (or "ABS" if space is limited) and the survey title. The provider's business name should also be added. For example, "ABS - Labour Price Index November 2007 - <Name of Business>".
Salutation, signature and disclaimer
Currently the ABS will only email respondents once a request for electronic correspondence has been raised, so contact details, including name of respondent, will be available. In light of this, all ABS outgoing emails should make use of a formal salutation. This salutation should be similar to that used in appropriate survey letters e.g., "Dear Mr/Ms Smith". Salutations should be used throughout all e-communications with respondents.
Similarly, emails should include a professional signature. The signature should be kept between four and six lines of text, (graphics should not be used). The signature should be standardised throughout ABS staff communicating with respondents using email. It should include information, such as position in the organisation, for the purpose of exerting authority. Alternative forms of communication, including the freecall phone number, as well as number to contact regarding the SDB are including in the body of the email, and should not be repeated in the signature. The signature should also carry a tagline, which could be a URL to the ABS website. Below is the standard signature and tagline to be used in e-communications with respondents:
Position of Signatory
Australian Bureau of Statistics
P.S. The ABS makes available a wide range of useful statistics free-of-charge, thanks to the data provided by people such as you. For details, see the ABS Website at <http://www.abs.gov.au/ >.
If the name of the respondent/provider is not available, or is impractical to personalise the email due to bulk despatch, then a salutation should not be used. An obvious sign to the respondent of unimportance is to begin an email with "Dear Respondent/Citizen/Resident/Friend". Emails addressed in this manner are more likely to be disregarded by the respondent as standard junk or spam.
Because any communication between the ABS and respondents is confidential, there should be a disclaimer at the end of the email explaining what the recipient should do if they have received the email in error. For example, the email may have been accidentally sent to the incorrect email address, or the email has been sent to the correct email address, but has been opened by someone other than the addressee. The following disclaimer should be at the end of all emails sent to respondents:
This email and any attachments to it (the "Communication") is intended for the individual or entity named and may contain information that is confidential. If you are not the intended recipient of the Communication, you are notified that any use or dissemination of this Communication is strictly forbidden. If you have received this message in error, please notify the sender immediately by return email, delete the Communication, and do not read, copy, print, retransmit, store or act in reliance on the Communication.
Body of email
The body of the email should be succinct and concise, but at the same time ensure that all the necessary information is included. The language should be kept professional and use plain English as with letters. Typical online lingo, such as abbreviations, and emoticons, (faces made from characters, e.g. :) or ;-P ) should not be used, to uphold the professional standards and ensure that all respondents understand the information.
The text of the email should be based on the content of the existing paper letters. This includes the purpose of the survey, relevant completion instructions, and a confidentiality statement.
Every email should include a paragraph referring to the method of receival, the Secure Deposit Box website (SDB), together with a contact number for the SDB helpline. The help information should also include the usual details for contacting the PCU.
If an Excel form with macros is being attached to the email, additional instructions regarding how to enable macros should be included.
For content details common to all survey contact, email and letters, as well as explanations for each of the different types of contact, i.e., Pre-approach, Cover, Reminder and other contact, please refer to the Forms Design Standards Manual.
The key difference between the content of emails and the paper letters is the references to the form. The form should be referred to as "attached" rather than "enclosed". The same goes for any separate explanatory notes which may also be attached to the email. Ensure that any references within the email to specific parts of the form or separate notes are still correct and make sense e.g. the notes may still technically have 'pages' but the form may not, it may have 'worksheets' or similar.
Email content that cannot be standardised is not covered in detail in these Standards. Emails, for which there are no standards yet, are still part of the survey process. They are often for the purpose of querying data during the editing phase or to gather ad hoc or supplementary information from providers who have already completed questionnaires.
These emails should always be personalised and professional, however, specific details of the respondent's situation, e.g. percentage pay movements or dollar figures, cannot be mentioned.
The following examples are adaptations of the current letter standards, based on the above email recommendations.
For general information about pre-approach contact, please look at Survey Letters-Pre-approach Letters.
Pre-approach emails might not be used often, as emails will generally only be used to communicate with respondents who specifically ask for this mode of communication. Therefore, it would be unlikely that our first contact with the respondent would be via email. However, in the future a respondent who already reports for one or more surveys electronically may be approached in regards to an additional survey by email.
If used, pre-approach emails should be short, standard emails that briefly describe the purpose of the collection, when the form will arrive and often the due date for the survey form's return. This email would be a good opportunity to raise the respondent's motivation to comply by presenting the ABS as an approachable and helpful organisation (freecall number provided) which collects information to help inform important decision making which has the potential to affect the respondent.
Example of pre-approach letter and how it should be changed according to the e-guidelines:
Example of pre-approach email:
For general information about covering emails, please look in the Survey Letters-Common Content.
Currently, new respondents do not receive a covering email and attached electronic form as the very first ABS contact. For this reason, there are some key differences between the wording of covering letters and covering emails.
There are several instances where a cover email may be an appropriate form of contact. Contacts receiving emails could be existing respondents of the survey who have explicitly asked to report electronically. In this case, the introduction would differ from a letter because it would acknowledge prior communication. For example, "Thank you for the request to provide information in the Survey of...electronically. As discussed, please find attached...".
Additionally, some respondents who receive an electronic form in their first cycle as an electronic reporter may choose to retain the form. In subsequent periods, the respondent is advised, via email, to take a new copy of the file ("roll-over"), complete it and submit it by the specified due date.
For example, for the Survey of International Investment Excel form, most of the respondents receive a new copy of the form each quarter while a small number of respondents are provided with instructions on how to update the metadata in the spreadsheet and to use the same spreadsheet each quarter ("roll-over"). The small number of roll-over respondents receive a joint email (as bcc) informing them that it is time to roll-over the form and the due date for the current quarter submission.
The cover email is usually the first contact for the cycle with existing electronic respondents. The email content should include:
Example of cover letter, with necessary changes following e-guideline recommendations
Example of roll-over email
For general information about reminders, please refer to the Survey Letters-Reminder Letters.
Reminder emails should only be sent out to respondents who specifically ask for email communication and lodge e-forms. All reminders must clearly show the collection to which they refer. Many respondents receive a number of forms, both from the ABS and other sources, and they may relate a reminder to the last (or first) form they received if the collection name is not immediately apparent. The title of the collection should be at the top of the email and in the 'Subject' field.
The reference period of the collection to which the reminder refers must also be clearly stated. Reminder action may extend into a later collection period (particularly in the case of monthly collections) and it is imperative that the respondent relate the reminder to the data required.
If forms have changed from the previous collection cycle it is important to include notification of this in the reminder. This is particularly important for e-forms as data may be automatically extracted. Without notification the respondent may not know that they have to make some changes to their extraction programs, and data quality could potentially be impacted.
There are three levels of reminders generally used by the ABS. The first reminder is a gentle encouragement for respondents to complete and return their survey forms. The second reminder reinforces the message in the first reminder, by referring in greater detail to the ability of the ABS to direct respondents to comply. The third reminder is very strongly worded, that will leave the respondent in no doubt as to the course of action that may follow should they not comply.
All reminders should include:
Second Reminder Letter example, with recommendations
Third reminder letter, with email recommendations:
In some situations, a respondent may have a genuine reason for not participating in the survey. In these cases an exemption may be granted and an exemption email sent.
Example of exemption letter, with recommendation:
Example of exemption email:
This page last updated 27 January 2010
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