Getting government to use plain English

In June 2014 the Department of Internal Affairs Digital Transformation team hosted the Assisted Digital Summit. Small business owners, community workers, public servants, and IT entrepreneurs came together to explore how to help people transact with government digitally, and how to provide alternatives for those who can’t.

Although the need for government to use plain English (or plain language) falls outside the scope of Assisted Digital, people attending thought it was important, as everything we do in the digital channel needs to be easy for people to understand. So we thought we’d pick up the conversation.

Why plain English is important for government

Translating ‘government speak’ to include our customers

Jargon is all around us. It evolves through shared experience and may mean different things — or sometimes nothing at all! — to different people depending on their experience. If you speak the language you feel included; using jargon excludes people.

Within government it’s easy to become so familiar with acronyms and jargon that we forget these terms aren’t used by everyone. If we want our customers to feel connected with government services and not alienated or confused, we need to use language that makes sense to them.

Reassuring customers that they’re doing the right thing

We know people who use government services need reassurance because dealing with the public sector can be confusing. Unless we can explain to customers in plain language what they need to know, they may stop trying to use an online service and call or visit us instead. Recent research by Result 10 found that 52 per cent of customers spend a lot of time checking and asking questions to make sure they’re doing everything right when dealing with government. How much could we reduce this if we used plain English?  Helping customers meet their obligations could be as simple as explaining more clearly what they need to do.

What we already know

In New Zealand

There are pockets of good practice across government. Govt.nz has its own style guide and is transparent about its plain English approach to content. This year it’s a finalist in the plain English awards – the winners will be announced on Thursday 27 November. Many agencies have plain English champions who are passionate about communicating clearly with customers.

There’s currently no mandate to follow plain English principles. However, the New Zealand Government Web Standards Working Group promotes it in its guidance on accessible language. The Parliamentary Counsel Office, which drafts the bulk of New Zealand legislation, aims to make legislation more accessible by making it as clear and simple as possible. There are commercial organisations that offer training in plain English as well as the annual WriteMark Plain English Awards.

Overseas

The US, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, the UK and the European Union all have strategies for promoting plain language.

The US passed the Clear Writing Act in 2010 that requires agencies to use plain language in any document about a government benefit or service that they can apply for, or complete needed for them to meet obligations. Agencies must have a plain writing section on their website and report each year on how they’re complying with the Act.

In the UK, the Plain English Campaign has been fighting for clear writing since 1979. GOV.UK has a comprehensive style guide for government websites and has trained more than 1,000 writers. Their style guide includes plain English principles and best practice principles for metadata, web writing, accessibility, and document design.

Challenges

So what are our challenges in implementing plain English?

  • Understanding our audience. We need to know if our customers understand us. How do we know what’s hard for someone outside our organisation to understand? User testing is becoming more common when writing content for a digital channel.
  • Consistency. How do we create a consistent approach across agencies and within our content review cycles?
  • Improving our skills. How do we make sure plain English becomes second nature? Should it be a basic competency for anyone in government who writes for the public?
  • Transparency. Plain English demystifies. As well as demystifying the messages we want people to pick up, it also means increased transparency and owning the stand we take.  Are we worried that enforced clarity will leave us more open to criticism?

Call to action

We’d love to hear your thoughts on:

  1. What would best practice or plain English guidelineslook like? The Summit showed a desire for agencies to follow consistent, high quality practices.
  2. Would you be interested in being part of a plain English working group if we started one?
  3. How can we pilot these ideas? Can we get an agency response on how plain English could work for them? Any ideas what it would look like?
  4. What are your thoughts around using plain English from an editor or blogger perspective?
  5. How can we measure improvements of plain English initiatives and training within agencies?

We will be having a plain English workshop on 9 December. The intention is to hear from colleagues about how they have ensured their content is in plain English and discuss how to make it a higher priority for government. If you'd like to attend, please email Corinne.Cordes@dia.govt.nz.

Resources

1 comment

  1. Comment #1. Luciane:

    the justice ministry has a web guide to plain English and how to structure content for the web all Staff must been through our web training programme in order to be able to upload content on the web. HR also runs a writing course on plain English for other staff.

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