Can you just write an executive summary?

If you’ve just finished your asset management plan or infrastructure strategy this request may not exactly be music to your ears!

That’s because executive summaries for asset management plans and any other large council document are not necessarily something we have ever been formally taught how to do. Despite this, it’s a satisfying document to write because it’s about cutting through the details to what really matters — the guts of the larger document. And at least you know the executive summary will be reasonably widely read, which may not always the case for your larger documents.

The purpose of a summary

It’s fair to assume that a reasonable proportion of your readers won’t read your whole asset management plan or infrastructure strategy or other long council document. Councillors have more than enough reading material provided with every agenda, and interested members of the community need to fit writing their submission (or informal feedback) into a short amount of time around work and/or family obligations.

Writing a high quality executive summary can give the gift of time to people who need to know the key points about your plan or strategy.

So what do decision makers and members of the public really need to know? I asked several people who read a lot of these types of documents for feedback on what makes a good executive summary.

One asset manager said too often large portions of text are copied and pasted into the executive summary. Instead, the executive summary has to distil the content without repeating the detail.

How long should an executive summary be?

Chris Pearce (Senior Advisor, Project and Portfolio Management at Kāpiti Coast District Council) says if an executive summary is any more than four pages it can seem like you’re reading the whole document, not the summary.

Similarly Wikihow’s advice on executive summaries is to aim for a document 5% the size of the source document, and it shouldn’t be more than 10%. So for a 60 page infrastructure strategy, that gives you a target of three pages and a maximum of six pages. Given the size of the canvas you’ve got to work with, what must be included?

Content

David Hammond, who is Nelson City Council’s Acting Chief Executive, provided me with this succinct, useful list for writing the executive summaries of asset management plans:

  • the right story/debate
  • overall costs
  • timing
  • the major projects
  • the overall impact.

Structure

In terms of the structure, one of the recommendations was that the executive summary should mirror the sections in the main body of the document so the reader can easily reference the details if they want to know more about something mentioned in the summary.

One way to compose an executive summary is to start with the conclusion of each section and include only as much information as is needed to explain the conclusion.

This is where the ABT structure I have mentioned in previous articles can come in handy. For each section, it’s worthwhile trying to apply the story structure of … and …, but …, therefore … 

This approach will also help you to break out of copying paragraphs directly from the body of the document. More on using story structure when writing infrastructure strategies is available here.

This structure isn’t always a good fit — it worked really well for a waste assessment executive summary I wrote earlier this year, but I haven’t been able to use it in the two executive summaries I wrote over the past month.

Tone

Chris Pearce says the summary needs to accurately reflect the tone and conclusions in the plan or strategy, which is not always the case in summaries he has read. This is why it’s important to write the executive summary after writing the full document, rather than beforehand, once you fully understand what the full document is saying. It’s also why writing an executive summary is more difficult than most people think.

The asset manager who provided feedback for this article also said a good executive summary is extremely difficult to compile and is consequently quite a rare item.

Step by step process

I have found the fact that it’s difficult to do an executive summary well can lead to dancing around it, rather than jumping in and getting a draft on the page. That’s why I developed an eight step process to help me overcome this resistance.

You are welcome to access my step by step process for writing an executive summary here.