New Zealand Law Society - In pursuit of plain English

In pursuit of plain English

Kristy McDonald KC shares her views on the Plain Language Act 2022 and whether it’s actually going to make a difference to how our public services communicate with us.

We now have new legislation – The Plain Language Act 2022 – to police how government agencies communicate.

Great. I’ve been waiting on this for some time in the hope it may rid us of Wellington’s penchant for jargon-filled, meaningless sentences, and often impenetrable documents that say nothing.

That is often the point, of course. Bureaucrats have made an art form out of intentionally not communicating clearly, while at the same time creating the impression something is being done.

As someone who spends much of my working life wading through impenetrable jargon, my expectations for this legislation were high. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The legislation is supposed to improve the effectiveness and accountability of the public service. It requires communications to be clear, concise, well-organised, and appropriate for the intended audience.

It is said that the Act will make for a more inclusive democracy, particularly for people who speak English as a second language, people with disabilities, and those with lower levels of education. Few will argue with the intention, although it is sad that we need an Act of Parliament to make the public service communicate clearly.

But how will the new law work?

The Act requires government agencies to appoint “plain language officers” to ensure there is compliance with the legislation and deal with complaints or requests from the public. Agencies have to provide regular reports to the Public Service Commissioner to tell them how well they’ve done.

Some would argue that these measures introduce an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and do nothing but increase cost and create inefficiency. It might have been easier if agencies simply instructed staff to write simply and clearly and to not use the word “journey” unless they were going on holiday.

Moreover, it is hard to understand what this additional layer of bureaucracy will be able to achieve because the Act does not include any enforcement mechanisms. The public will not be able to seek any remedy if they find documents difficult to understand.

The need to communicate in plain language has never been more important. People don’t trust spin or gobbledygook. In a time of increasing mis- and disinformation, where it is often difficult to discern what is true and what is false, clear, honest, intelligible communication is what any Government and public service should aspire to.

But where does all this sit with “new speak”? Will the Ministry of Education refer to “cognitive injustice” or to attempts to “decolonise the physics curriculum”?

Given that New Zealand’s Act is closely modeled on America’s 2010 Plain Writing Act, it is useful to consider the law’s impact there. After it was passed, plain language advocates in the US were initially unimpressed by its impact.

However, the Center for Plain Language, a non-governmental organisation that reports on writing quality in government agency documents, noted significant improvements between 2013 and 2021.

Let’s hope the New Zealand experience is the same. It would be good to see government bureaucrats communicating in clear, direct language that we can all understand.