1530.0 - ABS Forms Design Standards Manual, 2010  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2010  First Issue
   Page tools: Print Print Page Print all pages in this productPrint All  
Contents >> Survey Letters >> Survey Letters-Covering Letters


While aspects of these standards will be of interest to those outside the ABS, they were developed for internal use. As such, some information contained in these standards will not be applicable to an external audience. ABS staff should refer to the Corporate Manuals database for the most recent version of these documents, as some details (names, phone numbers etc.) have been removed from the online version.



The cover letter is usually the first point of contact (unless a pre-approach letter is used) for respondents receiving an ABS survey. Its content provides information and a freecall number, and is another chance to reassure respondents that their cooperation is greatly appreciated and expected by law.

Covering letters should be designed with the following in mind:
  • appropriate language should be used;
  • important elements should be stressed; and
  • the 'message' should be plain.

For letter details common to all letters, see Survey Letters-Common Content. The remainder of this document deals with the areas specific to covering letters.
Opening paragraphs

Some covering letters will include an opening paragraph which briefly explains who the ABS is and why the respondent's co-operation is important.

For example:

"Everyday, people make important decisions based on the wide range of high quality statistics produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The quality and usefulness of these statistics relies heavily on the co-operation of people like yourself who complete ABS surveys."

The first paragraph should state that the respondent has been selected in a survey, the name of the survey and the type and frequency of the survey.

For example:

"Your business has been selected to represent your industry in the annual Economic Activity Survey."
Purpose of the survey

The purpose of the survey should always be included. Not only does the purpose statement provide information about the collection, it is a chance to explain to the respondent that the request for data is important and useful to the community. It should be a brief, unbiased explanation of how the information collected is going to be used and for what purpose.

The purpose stated in the covering letter is slightly more expanded than that of reminder letters. This paragraph should also vary across surveys, as it should explain what is special about each one.
Due date

The due date is one of the most important inclusions of the cover letter, and should stand out above all other information if possible. This piece of information conveys to the respondent the expectation of completion by a certain date. The due date should be in 12 point, bold for emphasis.

For example:

"Please complete the enclosed form and return it in the reply paid envelope by 30 August 2006."

When a form needs to be re-dispatched to a respondent, for example when they have lost the original or if the original form was a return to sender (RTS), the original due date is not appropriate for use on the covering letter. In this case use "within 14 days of receipt", with the text still in bold.
Authority and confidentiality

Respondents are more likely to comply if the request is being made by someone who is perceived to have legitimate authority. Mention of the Census and Statistics Act 1905 is an important inclusion in the cover letter. Not only is it a chance to reassure the respondent that data collected is kept completely confidential (in accordance with the Act) it is also a chance to increase the legitimacy (hence the persuasiveness) of the request.

For example:

"This survey is being conducted by the ABS under the authority of the Census and Statistics Act 1905. The Act ensures that the information you provide is treated as strictly confidential and will be used for statistical purposes only."
General tailoring

The words used in the covering letter should be tailored where appropriate for the collection or respondent group. The first example below is used for the set of Economic Activity Survey forms, which contain mostly financial questions. Some standard items which would vary from this example include:

Any other survey would have a different explanation of how the statistics will be used.
A survey with sequencing would have "Please complete all relevant questions" rather than "..all questions".
The phrase "Your business.." would be replaced with "Your organisation" for surveys going to e.g. non-profit organisations, or with simply "You.." where the target is an individual such as with some environment surveys.
Specific notes about completing the form should be aligned e.g. "whole dollars" rather than "thousand dollars" would be used where appropriate.
Example 1: Economic Activity Survey 2005-06:

Specific tailoring

Tailoring more of the covering letter is sometimes appropriate to optimise its effectiveness, although in these cases DCM should be consulted. The covering letter below, used for the Agricultural Census 2005-06, is an example of tailoring the tone of the content to suit the respondent target group. All letters should be written using plain English, however it was particularly important for this letter to convey the message as clearly as possible to respondents with a range of literacy and English skills. This letter also used a larger font because many of the respondents were expected to be old enough to have failing eyesight.
Example 2: Agricultural Census 2005-06

Further tailoring may be appropriate for a specific respondent sub-group. A quite different covering letter to the example above was developed for respondents who may have been affected by cyclones that year. That letter was particularly emphatic about the importance of those respondents' completed forms as well as expressing understanding of their situation. This level of tailoring is acceptable in certain circumstances, however testing is strongly recommended.

A letter that is appropriate for one mode of collection will generally not be suitable for other modes of collection. For example, the Job Vacancy Survey (JVS) is a telephone survey, with respondents being sent a card explaining what to report later when they are called by the ABS. Therefore, the standard covering letter language had to be adapted for the JVS covering letter (shown below) which goes out with the telephone reporting card.
Example 3: Job Vacancies

Below are two examples of covering letters tailored to the longitudinal Business Characteristics Survey. For a longitudinal survey it is particularly important to get very high response rates each time, while acknowledging to respondents the effort required from them. The first cover letter is sent to the respondents who are new to the survey cycle. The second cover lettter would be sent to the respondents who are currently in the survey cycle.
Example 4: Business Characteristics Survey (sent to new respondents)

Example 5: Business Characteristics Survey (sent to continuing respondents)

Previous PageNext Page