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Plain language for all levels of government

The use of plain language may be gathering momentum in South Africa’s private sector, but the public sector in general continues to lag.

Although some government departments have strong, active plain language programmes in place, it isn’t the norm and the public continues to be confused by complicated and often incoherent communication.

“We are well aware that people want government to talk to them in language that they can understand and relate to,” says Makhosini Nyathi, a Communications Director at the Department of Water and Sanitation.

“Over the years the Department has produced many brochures, booklets, posters and even videos in our attempt to inform and update the general public and communities amongst other stakeholders about our work and services. In one of our most recent projects, we translated the manual of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) into 5 official languages. In this way, we make sure that everyone can understand our messages so that all South Africans will take up the challenge to use our water resources responsibly. We always try to make provision for translation and interpretation services at our outreach and community engagements so that no one is disadvantaged and ends up not getting a clear understanding of the message that would be communicated on the day. ”

The Plain Language Institute calls on government communicators to do even more to make their communication clear.

Communicators must take a critical look at the communication materials they are distributing, what spokespersons are saying, and how regulatory documents are worded. Citizens can only participate meaningfully in government programmes if they can understand and relate to the communication that they receive.

The SA Department of Government Communications has published Golden Rules for Government Communicators. This Editorial Style Guide, available on its website, specifies that communicators’ writing should be brief and clear, avoid unnecessary words and phrases, and use the correct word order.

A whole section is dedicated to ‘Using Plain Language’. Yet, South Africans continue to be confronted with poorly-written communication littered with acronyms and complex words and phrases that are not only confusing or misleading, but are often redundant or just incomprehensible.

Still, we read and hear phrases or words like ‘engage constructively’, ‘effectuate’, ‘expeditious’, ‘programme initialisation’, ‘tendentious’, and the ever-popular ‘mutually beneficial’.

When it comes to communicating important healthcare advice, public safety information, regulatory requirements and the like, ignoring the communication needs of citizens can be disastress.

Government communicators should take heed of the recommendations in the Department of Communications’ Editorial Style Guide which states:

 “Do not assume your reader will understand what you know. In fact, accept that they will not understand. This way, you’ll explain or describe it simply and clearly and make sure that all technical or difficult terms and concepts are explained.

“Whenever possible, use simpler words and shorter sentences, because these make it easier for readers to access information. Plain language writing should not be confused with underestimating your readers’ intelligence. It is therefore writing in a concise and straightforward way.”

The move towards plain language can be a slow process. In the United States for instance, the plain language movement started in earnest as far back as the 1970s when the federal government encouraged regulation writers to be less bureaucratic. But it was only in 2010 that President Obama signed the Plain Language Act, which states that all government communication must be clear and understandable to citizens.

Other countries that are also actively pursuing plain language include Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Portugal and Mexico.

In South Africa, we have the necessary legislation in place. Plain language is a requirement in a number of Acts such as the Companies Act, the National Credit Act, the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act and the Consumer Protection Act.

But we still have a long way to go with implementation.

South Africans have the right to understand what their government is doing for them, what it expects of them, and what it is saying to them. Hopefully, plain language will eventually be used at all levels of government and across all departments. Let’s start from today.

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