Commonwealth agency documents aren’t readable enough, study finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday March 3, 2021

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Too many workplaces still insist they are unique and cannot provide flexible work environments (Image: Adobe/metamorworks)

The majority of commonwealth agency documents are difficult for the public to read due to an overuse of lengthy sentences in writing and passive voice, according to new research.

The study conducted by Canberra consultancy Ethos CRS found that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Defence Housing Australia, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications were the top three agencies for clear writing.

Ethos CRS surveyed 136 public documents from 35 agencies. It used clear writing benchmarks recommended by the Australian Government Style Manual — which Ethos helped design — and the language analysis platform VisibleThread.

These guidelines recommend:

  • A grade level (or year level) of seven or lower,
  • No more than 5% long sentences,
  • At least 96% active voice sentences.

The study found that federal government agencies use sentences that are too long and too much passive voice in their documents.

Read more: Updated Australian Government Style Manual officially goes live

Ethos CRS CEO Chas Savage said that while the top three agencies wrote clearer, shorter sentences and less passive voice than the other surveyed agencies, their public documents were still above the recommended readability level.

“Achieving the readability benchmark is tough,” he said.

“But all governments have to get their messages across to citizens whose literacy levels vary widely. We know from the Bureau of Statistics that only half of all Australians have ‘adequate or better’ reading skills.”

Failure to communicate effectively can negatively impact government, businesses, and the public, Savage noted.

“Unless government documents are clearly written, citizens are less able to understand their rights and responsibilities. If organisations communicate better with all of their users, they will deliver their services better,” he said.

“By creating documents that users understand, everyone benefits — organisations and users.”

The research found that government websites are easier to read than documents. Ethos CRS analysed the Services Australia and Australian Taxation Office websites, finding that Services Australia’s site scored twice as well as the best document in its document survey.

Read more: Writing: five ways to get your brief read by the minister


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