Published in the Public Sector Informant, Canberra Times, on October 1 2019
On a dark and stormy night, a long time ago, a colleague of mine, having spent long hours reviewing and clearing documents, declared that the work of reading as a professional was akin to dragging a coffin through mud. He thought it hard, dispiriting and uncertain work. Sometimes, what was finally produced would end in a crypt, never again to see the light of day.
Perhaps I caught him at a bad time.
But I suspect that he was not alone in believing that documents should be accurate, brief and clear. And that such documents are testament to an effective public service and a force for good in the community. Now, years later, I can think of four reasons why this might be so.
The first is that, because we now live in an online world, modern audiences read and engage with text differently to those who are not digital natives. A modern reader scans text rather than reads from beginning to end. Text that is unclear, meaning that is not concisely delivered and statements that are inaccurate make these readers disengage. And a disengaged reader represents a lost opportunity on the part of the writer to convince and persuade.
The benefits of producing clear documents are tangible, meaningful and positive, and well worth the effort. Picture: Leah-Anne Thompson
The second goes to the relationship between the government and the governed. Back in 2011, the then Commonwealth Ombudsman made the point that governments needed to communicate the point of policies and programs in a way that citizens understood. Text that is clear helps citizens be aware of what they can expect from government, but also makes their own obligations and responsibilities clear.
Text and documents that are accurate and brief, and which are clear to the identified audience, positively shape expectations and allow citizens to engage with government more easily. Some agencies understand this. The federal Department of Human Services has invested a lot of time and resources to improve the accessibility and readability of its website. Other agencies have a way to go.
The third reason is also about government and citizens. In 1946, George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, the purpose of which was to inoculate citizens against the abuse of language by power. Starting from a point that was admittedly low – “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way” – Orwell argues that, if we can get rid of bad habits, we can “think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”.
Unclear government documents are almost certainly misleading. We are misled by omission, because the dull language crushes us and we stop reading, or because meaningless words, selected with the intention to mislead, make it impossible for us to understand.
It matters not if we are abused by the first or second of these reasons; our standing as citizens in a representative democracy suffers equally. If we are rendered incapable of understanding the words and meaning of government on important matters, we become less competent as managers of our own destinies. The fourth reason is pragmatic and mercantile. A team that routinely produces text and documents that are accurate, brief and clear is a team that saves time, effort and resources.
Imagine an executive level 1 officer on a package of about $130,000 a year. Imagine this person spends 25 per cent of their time researching, writing, reviewing and clearing documents. Imagine that, instead of spending 100 minutes on this writing work, this person spends 96 minutes.
In total, they are 1 per cent more efficient in their work and generate, each year, a productivity gain of $1300. Imagine 100 such officers in a particular agency, 100 EL2s and 1500 APS-level officers, each generating productivity gains that can be banked, year in and year out.
Finally, add the benefits that accrue because citizens now understand how programs work and companies, say, understand their regulatory obligations. All of a sudden, the benefits to society become tangible, realisable and very, very large.
Now, only a fool would rush in and say the work of producing clear documents in a government agency is easy. Legislation is complex; problems are wicked; evidence is often less than perfect; time is short; ministerial directions are sometimes unclear; opposition is fierce; standards are inconsistently applied; resources are sometimes less than perfect.
Back in 1962, the United States president committed the government’s resources to the Apollo program: the work of putting a human on the moon. In doing so, the president argued that the choice was made not because the project would be easy but because it would be hard; an ambition worthy of a great nation. We just celebrated the anniversary of that dedicated effort.
Obviously, the work of producing a clear document is no Apollo program. One project is fantastical and inspirational; the other prosaic and mundane, menial almost. Yet the benefits of producing clear documents are tangible, meaningful and positive, and well worth the effort.