In New Zealand Passing a Law Promoting the Use of Simple Language in Government Documents Is Proving Complicated

From a Wall Street Journal story by Mike Cherney headlined “A Nation Tries to Banish Jargon. If Only It Were That Simple”:

During a recent session of New Zealand’s parliament, government lawmaker Sarah Pallett rose to recite “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth, a poem that used literary language to describe going for a walk and seeing daffodils.

“Good old Wordsworth,” Ms. Pallett said. “But that is the place for flowery, inaccessible language—in poetry and literature, and not in government legislation.”

A push to pass a law promoting the use of simple language in New Zealand’s government documents is proving complicated. For one thing, no one can quite agree on what plain English actually means.

Nearly 70 citizens and groups have made written comments. Officials put together a 53-page report, and a legislative committee needed 19 pages to explain and present an amended version of the bill. Lawmakers have quoted “Chronicles of Narnia” author C.S. Lewis, American linguist Julia Penelope and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the importance of being clear and concise.

Supporters say the law is needed to make sure citizens understand how to access public services and keep tabs on what the government is doing. Critics say that the law will create more bureaucracy and paperwork, and that government departments can implement plain-language policies without legislation.

“Let me speak with extremely plain language,” Chris Bishop, an opposition lawmaker, said during the parliamentary debate on the law. “This bill is the stupidest bill to come before parliament in this term.”

The debate in New Zealand is the latest in a decades long campaign by plain-language advocates to get governments around the world to simplify their communications. Mrs. Thatcher is often quoted as saying that plain English must be the aim of all who work in government. Some activists mark Oct. 13 as International Plain Language Day. In 2010, the U.S. Congress went so far as to pass the Plain Writing Act, which requires federal agencies to communicate clearly.

What’s not plainly obvious is whether plain-language laws make a difference. There are 776 plain-language laws across the U.S., but academics haven’t studied the effects of most of them, one scholar wrote in the University of Miami Law Review earlier this year. ​Some advocates are concerned the laws don’t include strong enough penalties for failing to comply.

There are some encouraging signs for the enemies of jargon. In the U.S., the Center for Plain Language, which grades federal agencies on how well they follow the Plain Writing Act, found last year that two-thirds of agencies surveyed earned an A for their compliance with the law, which includes staffing, training and reporting requirements. But the average writing grade was B-, unchanged from the previous year.

In New Zealand, 56-year-old Amanda Nally recently tried to help her elderly mother change the bank account where her government pension is deposited. She couldn’t find the answer anywhere on a government website.

“We’re making it really, really hard for a lot of people to actually interact with government departments,” said Ms. Nally, who supports the bill. “A lot of the stuff I see is full of jargon.”

New Zealand’s plain-language advocates give out annual awards for the best and worst government and private-sector communications. Simon Hertnon, who teaches writing courses and has served as a judge, recalled one government job description for a business process coordinator that was particularly indecipherable. It had only 16 full sentences over about 1,700 words and included dozens of bullet points.

“Smart people would have gone, I need to avoid this,” he said.

Plain-language advocates frown on long sentences, passive verbs and unexplained acronyms, and say writing basics such as word choice and document structure can make all the difference. In one example, the title of a New Zealand police form for background checks used the potentially confusing term “vetting service.” The form also had multiple fonts and different sizes of check boxes, creating chaos for the eyes.

“It seems likely that many readers will not understand this information and what they’re signing off on,” the language awards judges said of the form.

Lynda Harris, chief executive of Write Ltd., which offers plain-language consulting and training, believes the bill has a good chance of passing. The Covid-19 pandemic, during which clear government communication became crucial to public health, has focused attention on the importance of plain language, she said.

To determine what exactly that constitutes, Ms. Harris suggested lawmakers turn to the appropriately named International Plain Language Federation, which believes readers should be able to “easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

Others have argued that even the term “plain language” is subjective, and recommended the bill use “clear communication” instead.

An early version of the bill suggested that government documents be easily understood after one reading. Lawmakers decided that was impractical, especially for more technical documents. The proposal now says communications should be appropriate for its intended audience.

The recent parliamentary debate was heated. Rachel Boyack, a government lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said her constituents, particularly immigrants, often bring in important forms or letters from government agencies that they don’t understand.

The opposition was critical of a plan to task so-called plain language officers with monitoring the writing of each government department.

“These plain language police will become busybodies,” said lawmaker Simeon Brown.

In the end, the parliament advanced the bill, 77 to 43. More discussion and voting will be required before it can become law. Duncan Webb, a government lawmaker, said the bill will make the public service more effective, noting civil servants’ language skills often devolve into convoluted jargon after enough time on the job.

“Our advisers and our people who work in ministries do a great job,” he said, “but they do need to get out more sometimes.”

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