Internal pain points, adaptability to change, improved performance capabilities and the overlap of certain scheduling provisions: these are the mind-boggling, often enraged specters of government that haunt official documents.
Now the New Zealand government is trying to draw a thick red line through the worst offenders, with a new law requiring bureaucrats to use simple, understandable language to communicate with the public.
The controversial bill went into second reading last month after a colorful parliamentary debate, but has yet to be voted on before it becomes law.
“‘I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er valleys and hills, When suddenly I saw a crowd, a crowd, golden daffodils,'” quoted MP Sarah Pallett in the House. “Great,” she continued. “In short: ‘I felt sad. I went for a walk. I’ve seen many beautiful daffodils and they cheered me up right away” – good old Wordsworth. But that is the place for flowery, inaccessible language – in poetry and literature, not in government law.”
The plain language law requires that government communications to the public be “clear, concise, well-organized and appropriate for the public”. For the country’s anti-gibberish brigade, it’s a victory: they say plain language is a matter of social justice and a democratic right.
“People living in New Zealand have a right to understand what the government is asking of them, what their rights are, what they are entitled to from the government,” said Rachel Boyack MP, who presented the bill.
‘Mistakes have been made’
Proponents say there is much room for improvement in the New Zealand government’s communications. For example, the country has an annual award for plain language, which includes a trophy for “best sentence transformation.” This offering, from the government’s statistics department, recently won the award:
Over the year, we tested the organization’s readiness for innovation and adaptability, made significant changes to our prioritization and investment approach, moved to activity-based working, and watched teams respond in Stats by freeing up time to focus on addressing customer and internal pain points. ”
We tested how ready our organization was to innovate and implement change. We also changed our approach to prioritizing and investing, moving towards a flexible work style for our employees. In response, the employees focused on resolving their own irritations and those of customers.”
Another effort came from the NZ Transport Authority:
Where it has been identified and possible to update, it has been ensured that the future band assignment is correct. ”
Where possible, we have identified and updated affected sub-models to ensure they are assigned the correct charge band in the future.
Bad sentences are more than an aesthetic concern, says Lynda Harris, who launched the awards and leads the Comprehensible Language consultancy Write Ltd. Government communications determine the most intimate and important aspects of people’s lives: their immigration status, divorce papers, entitlement to social benefits or ability to build a home. When people send letters like this, “they describe their tears of frustration, anger, because they just tried to get something done,” she says.
When governments communicate in ways people don’t understand, people can’t use services available to them, lose confidence in government, and be unable to fully participate in society, Boyack says. The most affected people are people who speak English as a second language, have not attended university, have a disability or are elderly.
The bill is not supported by everyone. Proponents say that some parts don’t have clear enough definitions. The New Zealand opposition claims it will add even more bureaucracy and costs, in the form of plain language supervisory officials, without actually improving communication with the public. “Let me speak in very clear language,” said National Member of Parliament Chris Bishop. “This bill is the dumbest bill to come before parliament during this term. National will withdraw it.”
Labor lawmakers claim it will eventually pay off – through better tax compliance, less time spent by call centers and staff dealing with a bewildered audience, and more trust in government.
‘Language is a vehicle’
Can clearer sentences accomplish all that? Possibly not. But proponents say clear language is a boon to both responsibility and understanding. “Language is a vehicle. It’s just a means to an end,” Harris says: It’s supposed to tell people what happened, who was responsible, and what can be done.
In an ideal world, that would mean an end to artifacts like ‘mistakes have been made’: a sentence structure in which mistakes float unencumbered by responsible parties, on which politicians and bureaucracies rely to obscure responsibility. One political commentator called it the “liberating past tense” – and it comes through reliably in the wording associated with police shootings: “The officers met a male suspect…at which point a cop-involved shooting occurred” , reads a Los Angeles police. Department sample collected by the Washington Post.
“Language is not an objective view of reality,” says linguist Dr Andreea Calude. “We all use language to frame the kind of scene we’re describing in the way that suits us.” Plain language may leave a little less leeway, she says, but simpler sentences aren’t an automatic path to transparency.
“I don’t think plain language can really solve that problem. As long as people are creative, playful and inventive, I think they will find a solution.”