Plain English is hardly a new idea. It’s been more than 30 years since the Australian government launched its simpler forms project, and most agencies today have made some attempt at clear communication.
But how are agencies actually faring with plain English? With little publicly available data, the Plain English Foundation decided to find out. We surveyed 50 public sector organisations that have run a plain English program during the last 15 years.
The results are somewhat sobering. Despite 30 years of experience, fewer than half of the agencies that take the plain English challenge seem to succeed.
Lack of direction
Part of the problem is there are few sector-wide standards for plain English in any Australian jurisdiction. There are piecemeal documents on branding, advertising or web writing, and some states have the odd page on plain English. South Australia has a best practice guide but it isn’t clear how well they enforce it. The 2002 Australian Style manual is increasingly out of date.
And although around 40 acts and regulations in Australia have some kind of plain English requirement, there is no legal mandate – a stark contrast to the plain language laws of countries such as South Africa, Sweden and the United States.
Instead, Australian agencies are largely on their own when scaling the plain English peak. Our survey found that there are four stages they need to pass on that climb:
- Critical mass
Initiation: most start without a plan
All the agencies we surveyed started with a conscious ambition to “plain English” their communications. While ministerial dissatisfaction helped to kick-start a program, most got going after a management-level champion heard the success story of another agency.
Unfortunately, the approach many agencies took fell short of the task. Rather than starting with rigorous needs analysis and a strategic plan, they framed the problem narrowly as a skills issue to be solved through training alone.
Authorisation: a quarter fail on the first climb
The process can go something like this: a director hears about plain English and pushes for some training. L&D arrange a course for (mostly junior) staff. The training rates well, but when staff apply it, middle managers rewrite documents in the traditional style. The program winds up, having achieved incremental improvement.
Training is essential but on its own it is not enough. Agencies need to interrogate their underlying communications systems and their executives need to drive reform of what can be an entrenched writing culture. Yet a quarter of the survey agencies failed to secure Executive support.
Critical mass: half don’t invest enough
Even when an agency gains Executive backing for a broader program, only half of the survey agencies then reached a critical mass.
In social dynamics, critical mass means that enough people in a system adopt an innovation for it to become self-sustaining. For plain English, this is the stage where most of an agency’s writing staff are competent in plain English and able to apply it.
Reaching critical mass is the hardest part of the climb and it requires the largest investment. As many as 60 to 70% of staff need to participate in writing training (including managers), and significant work is needed on templates, procedures and style guides. If an organisation is large or faces major change, the program can fall over. If it loses its champion, it can fall a long way.
Consolidation: only one-third reach the summit
To view this more positively, at least half of the survey agencies invested sufficiently in plain English to make a real difference. Unfortunately, only one-third consolidated their gains.
Consolidation should be the easiest stage. It involves training new recruits to maintain the critical mass of skills, and reinforcing plain English principles through mainstream processes such as recruitment tests and performance review. The investment required is relatively modest.
The danger is that agencies can conclude they have ‘done plain English’ and move on to other priorities. Staff turnover then presents a particular risk. Even with a turnover of just 5 to 8% a year, it only takes a few years to slip below critical mass. And if clear communication is not thoroughly embedded in underlying systems, the old writing culture restores its turgid text.
Critical success factors
So how exactly can agencies make the most of a plain English program? Our survey identified 10 critical success factors:
- Learn from the example of comparable organisations.
- Take a strategic approach and link plain English to organisational objectives.
- Start with a thorough evaluation and regularly assess the progress against benchmarks.
- Design a program that addresses skills, systems and culture.
- Ensure there is Executive engagement and support throughout.
- Appoint senior internal champions to overcome roadblocks.
- Train a critical mass of staff who write documents.
- Identify and update templates, style guides and procedures to embed a new culture.
- Bring in external expertise for strategy, training and templates.
- Consolidate plain English through recruitment and performance management.
Australian agencies may have 30 years experience with individual initiatives to improve communication. We now need a more strategic model to guarantee permanent clarity.