American congressman Maury Maverick first introduced this word to describe government jargon when he cautioned his staff to:
“Stay off the gobbledygook. It only fouls people up. For Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about…”
In our opinion, short sentences that clearly communicate what you’re wanting to say sums up plain language nicely.
The plain language movement in New Zealand enters a new phase on 21 April 2023 when the Plain Language Act 2022 takes effect. New legal duties will come into force requiring many public sector organisations to take reasonable steps to make sure their written communications are:
- appropriate to their audience
- well organised.
This article looks at the debate surrounding the Act, highlights its key requirements, and explains how we’re helping the departments and Crown agents amongst our 60+ public sector customers to comply with the new Act.
Is it necessary to legislate for plain language?
At ComplyWith we love creating clarity and championing plain language over gobbledygook. While we’re all for anything that helps replace complexity with clarity, recently a debate has emerged about whether it’s appropriate to go so far as legislating for plain language.
This type of law is not new or unique to New Zealand. The plain language movement started in the United States in the mid-1970s. Following the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the growth of the consumer-friendly movement, mandating plain language was seen as a way of helping to rebuild people’s trust in government institutions.
So began a cycle in the United States in which Democrate-led administrations would enact legislation to mandate the use of plain language, and then Republican administrations would repeal them. However, the latest version, the Plain Writing Act 2010 enacted under the Obama presidency remains in force today.
In New Zealand it took over 12 years from when the idea of a plain language Act was first floated for it to become law. It’s understood that if the National Party wins the general election this year, it’s likely to repeal the Plain Language Act. Here’s what National MP Simeon Brown had to say during the parliamentary debate about the Act:
“Plain language police! That’s what they’ll become. The plain language police, who will be having their clipboards and their little white coats, running around, looking over the shoulders of all the public servants, checking … are they writing with words of less than one syllable?”.
Three new requirements aiming to help improve clarity
Whether or not we consider the Plain Language Act necessary, it’s definitely coming into effect on 21 April 2023. Ironically there are plenty of examples of legislative gobbledygook in the Act itself and it is far from being a model of good clear plain language communication.
The Act says its purpose is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of the public sector and the accessibility of public documents. But the Act uses more than 50 words to say this. What would have been wrong with saying: The purpose of this Act is to improve the clarity of communications by the core public sector?
The Act creates obligations for organisations in the public service, which is defined as both:
- Departments, plus departmental agencies, interdepartmental executive boards, and interdepartmental ventures
- Crown agents.
The 3 key requirements of the Act are to:
- Use plain language in public-facing documents issued or revised from 21 April 2023. As noted above, plain language must be both:
- appropriate to the audience
- clear, concise, and well-organised.
- Appoint a plain language officer.
- Report annually to the Public Service Commissioner about compliance with the Act.
How is ComplyWith helping?
Our content team has released new plain language compliance content for the Plain Language Act well ahead of the Act taking effect.
Departments and Crown agents can now find their plain language compliance obligations and commentaries for the Act in their ComplyWith Obligations Register. Content for the Plain Language Act is in the Managing Information category.
Departments and Crown agents will need to appoint a plain language officer. This person needs to educate employees about the Act’s requirements. Encouraging employees to read ComplyWith’s content for the Act will be a good starting point.