Mike Callaghan is Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre

G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors will meet in Washington, DC on 18 April. They will issue a communiqué. But who will read it? These communiqués will never win a prize for literature. They are drafted by officials from a large number of countries, often trying to accommodate very different views. The joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee seems very relevant when looking at the convoluted and twisted language that comes from G20 meetings.

But in an age where clarity of communication and being 'on message' are considered vital for success, there surely must be scope to improve the communication from these meetings.

Here are ten tips for better G20 communiqués. The reference point is the last communiqué from the G20 Meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors in Moscow on 15-16 February 2013. It was not a poor communiqué, as far as they go, but it could have been shorter and sharper. My ten tips are:

  1. Remember the audience. If it is the public, then the communiqué should be coherent and readable. This seems obvious, but often the focus of the drafters is to accommodate differing points of view or have their particular issues mentioned, with little regard as to whether the end product is readable and the message clear. The drafters are writing for themselves.
  2. Decide on the main messages before getting into the detail. It is rare for a communiqué drafting session to begin by first discussing what should be the key messages in the document. People jump straight into the detail of the text.
  3. The proportion of the text devoted to an issue should bear some relation to the importance of the topic at the meeting. Approximately 16% of the Moscow communiqué covered the state of the global economy, the policy framework needed to promote growth and the issue of currency wars.  These were meant to be the major topics discussed at the meeting. Yet the largest part of the communiqué, over 40%, was devoted to reporting progress on financial regulation and financial inclusion.
  4. Cut down on the rhetoric and general statements and refer to specific policy action. The Moscow communiqué included many general statements, including references to establishing credible, medium-term fiscal consolidation plans. It would be a stronger statement if there was reference to the plans of specific countries.
  5. Leave the detail in other reports and cross reference. For example, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) provides the G20 with a report on progress on financial regulation. The G20 Finance Ministers communiqué could refer to the FSB report without repeating the detail. Similarly, the working groups could separately release their progress reports and the communiqué could just acknowledge that they have been released.
  6. Don't be afraid to report differences of view. If agreement has not been reached on an issue, outline the areas of difference and the plan to move forward. Realism builds credibility and the information is likely to leak anyway.
  7. Give some indication of what was actually discussed at the meeting. communiqués are drafted in advance and can sometimes bear little relationship to what was actually discussed. They are stilted documents. A communiqué that actually refers to the discussion at the meeting can have more immediacy and impact.
  8. If there is nothing new to say, don't say anything. There is little value in reiterating commitments or welcoming reports by international organisations.
  9. Keep it as short as possible. The rule for interpreting communiqués is that, if the paragraphs are long, it means there is no agreement and it has been a struggle to accommodate alternative viewpoints. The chair should be ruthless in keeping the communiqué concise.
  10. When drafting is finished, review the communiqué to make sure it is readable and the messages are clear.

Photo by Flickr user Codefor.