New Zealand hopes to banish jargon with plain language law

Internal pain points, change-adaptability, enhanced performance capability and the overlaying of certain planning provisions: these are the bewildering, often-enraging spectres of government gobbledegook that haunt official documents.

Now, the New Zealand government is attempting to drawing a thick red line through the worst offenders, with a new law demanding bureaucrats use simple, comprehensible language to communicate with the public.

The controversial bill passed its second reading last month, after colourful parliamentary debate, but still faces a final vote before becoming law.

“‘I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils’,” MP Sarah Pallett quoted in the House. “Beautiful,” she continued. “Basically: ‘I was feeling sad. I went for a walk. I saw a lot of beautiful daffodils, and they cheered me right up’ – good old Wordsworth. But that is the place for flowery, inaccessible language – in poetry and literature, and not in government legislation.”

The Plain Language Bill will require government communications to the public be “clear, concise, well-organised, and audience-appropriate”. For the country’s anti-gibberish brigade, it’s a victory: they say clear 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 them to do, and what their rights are, what they’re entitled to from government,” says MP Rachel Boyack, who presented the bill.

‘Mistakes were made’

Advocates say there’s vast room for improvement in New Zealand government communications. By way of example, the country has an annual plain language award which includes a “best sentence transformation” trophy. This offering, from the government’s statistics department, recently took the prize:

Over the year we tested the innovation readiness and change-adaptability of the organisation, made significant changes to our prioritisation and investment approaches, moved to activity based working and seen teams across Stats respond by making time to focus on tackling customer and internal pain points.”

It became:

We tested how ready our organisation was to innovate and make changes. We also changed our approach to setting priorities and to investing, and moved to a flexible working style for our staff. In response, staff focused on solving their own, and customers’, irritations.”

Another effort came from the NZ Transport Authority:

Where it has been identified and is possible to update this it has been undertaken ensuring future band allocation is correct.”

Transformed to:

Where possible, we’ve identified and updated affected sub-models to make sure they’re assigned the correct levy band going forward.

Bad sentences are more than an aesthetic concern, says Lynda Harris, who launched the awards and directs plain language consultancy Write Ltd. Government communications decide the most intimate and important parts of people’s lives: their immigration status, divorce papers, entitlements to welfare payments or ability to build a home. When people send in letters of that nature, they “describe their frustration tears, anger, because they’ve just tried to get a thing done,” she says.

When governments communicate in ways that people don’t understand, it can lead to people not engaging with services that are available to them, losing trust in government and not being able to participate fully in society, says Boyack. Those most affected are people who speak English as a second language, have not attended university, have disabilities, or are elderly.

The bill is not universally supported. Advocatessay some parts lack clear-enough definitions. New Zealand’s opposition argue it will add further layers of bureaucracy and cost, in the form of plain-language-monitoring officials, without actually improving communication with the public. “Let me speak with extremely plain language,” said National MP Chris Bishop. “This bill is the stupidest bill to come before parliament in this term. National will repeal it.”

Labour’s lawmakers argue that ultimately, it will pay off – via higher tax compliance, less time spent by call centres and staff dealing with a bewildered public, and increased trust in government.

‘Language is a vehicle’

Can clearer sentences really achieve all that? Possibly not. But advocates say plain language is a boon for accountability as well as comprehension. “The language is a vehicle. It’s just a means to an end,” says Harris: it should tell people what happened, who was responsible, and what can be done.

In an ideal world, that would mean an end to artefacts such as “mistakes were made”: a sentence structure where errors float unencumbered by responsible parties, leaned upon by politicians and bureaucracies to obscure responsibility. One political commentator has called it the “past exonerative” tense – and it crops up reliably in the phrasing associated with police shootings: “The officers encountered a male suspect … at which time an officer-involved shooting occurred,” reads one Los Angeles Police Department example gathered by the Washington Post.

“Language is not an objective view of reality,” says linguist Dr Andreea Calude. “We all use language to try and frame the kind of scene that we’re describing in the way that suits us.” Plain language may leave a little less room for manoeuvre, she says – but simpler sentences aren’t an automatic pathway to transparency.

“I don’t think plain language can really solve that problem. As long as humans are creative and playful and inventive, I think they’ll find ways around it.”