A great challenge for a professional officer is to make writing as clear as possible. It’s not just a practical need; for government, it’s a duty to communicate effectively with the public.
Today, we publish the result of research that shows the magnitude of the task – and sheds light on how to tackle it.
The 2021 readability scorecard: Australian Government agencies is the first survey of its kind in Australia. It surveyed 136 public documents from 35 agencies.
We found that Australian Government agencies create documents with sentences that are too long and use too much passive voice.
All 136 documents in the survey fell well below benchmarks for good readability.
To assess the writing quality of documents, Ethos CRS used a language analysis platform, VisibleThread. For each document, the platform gives a score for grade level, percentage of long sentences, and percentage of active and passive voice sentences.
Based on these 3 metrics, we calculated a readability index, which gives a composite single score showing the overall readability of each document.
The agency with the best average readability score across the 4 documents surveyed was the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, with a score of 34.5. Next were Defence Housing Australia, with a score of 34.3, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, with a score of 33.6.
The best individual document, the Defence Housing Australia corporate plan, had a readability score of 50.8.
Even these top scores were all well below the readability benchmark of 100.
The work of producing clear, readable documents generates a huge social and financial pay-off.
There are the benefits to users and organisations themselves. And there’s the benefit of improvements in productivity in the agencies creating documents.
Along the document survey, Ethos CRS made case studies of the websites of Services Australia and the Australian Taxation Office.
The lifeblood of these 2 agencies is providing services. Their websites are important channels for service delivery.
In 2019-20, Services Australia users viewed pages on its website 324 million times, according to its annual report. No wonder Services Australia makes a huge effort making its website clear and easy to read and understand.
The ATO also has a huge task. Its clients include 11.5 million individuals and 4.2 million small businesses, its annual report records.
For the website case studies, Ethos CRS used the same metrics as for the documents in the main survey. And the website scores were substantially better.
Services Australia’s readability score was 119.3, higher than the benchmark of 100. The readability score for the ATO case study was 51.2 – better than any of the 136 documents in the main survey.
What was the difference between the documents and the websites? Put simply, the websites used shorter words and shorter sentences, and had more active voice sentences.
For each website case study, Ethos CRS reviewed 10 webpages for a user undertaking a typical task. The Services Australia user was looking for information about Jobseeker payments during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ATO user was a newcomer to the workforce wanting to find out about how to lodge tax returns.
The website case studies show enormous dividends from investing in clear writing.
It’s not just a practical consideration, it’s a duty of government to be transparent with citizens and others.
The audience for government documents is wide. Not every document is written for every Australian, but every document should be written as clearly as possible, whoever the audience.
The challenge is all the greater when you consider that only half of Australians have ‘adequate or better’ skills at reading documents, according to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia, a 2013 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These are the expected reading levels of those who have completed year 10.
The standard set by the new edition of the Australian Government Style Manual, released last year, is tougher than that. It recommends that government writing should aim at the typical reading level of year 7 students. Writing to this level would meet the needs of 86% of Australians.
Writing at this level doesn’t just help those with lower levels of literacy. All readers, no matter how high or low their literacy, prefer content that’s easy to read.
The Australian Government Style Manual makes the point that low literacy can make it hard to access government services and information.
‘Many factors influence people’s access to education, including where they live. Post-school education is easier to access if you live in a major city,’ the Style Manual says. But an education doesn’t guarantee a reading level in line with a person’s qualification. Although about one in 3 Australians have a diploma or higher, only one in a 100 can read at that level.
‘Regardless of literacy levels, all users want to be able to interact with government easily. Respect their time by writing in plain language,’ the Style Manual advises. ‘Specialist content is more accessible for technical users when written in plain language.’
Ethos CRS used readability benchmarks recommended by the Style Manual and VisibleThread:
A document meeting these 3 benchmarks would score a 100 on Ethos CRS’s readability index. The higher the score on the index, the more readable the text.
The documents chosen for the survey included each agency’s annual report and corporate plan. Requirements for these are standard across government.
To broaden the sample, Ethos CRS selected, in most cases, 2 other documents. There were eight agencies without at least 3 documents meeting the selection criteria and these were left out of the survey.
The agency that scored best on the grade level metric was Defence Housing Australia, with an average of 13.0 across its 4 documents. Services Australia was close behind, with 13.2, followed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics with 13.7.
On sentence length, Defence Housing Australia had the best score, with an average of 21.9% long sentences. Next was the Australian Taxation Office with 25.1%, closely followed by Services Australia with 25.2%. Notably, the latter 2 agencies did much better in the website case studies than in the document survey.
The agency that used active voice the most was the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, with an average of 85.1% active voice sentences. Next were the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications with 83.4% active sentences and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission with 83.2%.
There was no significant correlation between the size of an agency and its readability scores in the document survey. Nor was there a significant correlation between readability scores and the type of agency. There were central agencies with readability scores in the second decile and the eighth decile. There were regulatory agencies in the first, fourth, fifth and tenth deciles. Line agencies ranged across the field.
This raises the question: Why do readability scores vary across agencies regardless of agency size and type? Most likely, this reflects differences in agencies’ cultures and the investment they have made in developing the writing skills of their staff.
The readability scores are enlightening and useful. They’re an important starting point in assessing clear writing. But we recognise that they have limitations.
The scores don’t capture all aspects of clear writing; they don’t measure the overall structure, logical flow and coherence. They also don’t include the formatting elements.
Another point to bear in mind is that not all documents need to aim for the same benchmarks. The purposes of and audiences for government documents vary widely.
But whatever your audience and whatever benchmark you set, the readability scores help you measure the quality of your writing.
That’s an important first step to improving it.