Use Case: Plain Language – Deliver Government Information and Services Using the Language of the Intended Audience
Rachel Flagg (U.S. Federal Web Managers Council)
This case defines how poor communication undermines effective electronic government.
To be successful, government must communicate with the public in terms and formats easily understood by the average person. To be useful, government information must be presented in the language of the audience, not the organization. Electronic government can only be effective if the intended audience can easily find information, and understand how to use that information to meet their needs.
Using plain language helps people understand and use government information and services effectively, making the public more productive. When people understand what their government is doing and saying, government is more transparent, and citizens can easily see and understand how their tax dollars are being spent.
- Citizens – People who use the internet to directly interact with their government, and people who receive government information and/or services through a third party.
- Public Administrators – government officials who deliver and/or use online information to serve constituents.
- Government Web Content Managers – Government web content must be written from the perspective of the end user, to provide the greatest value to the public.
- Developers – Online applications that are easy to use and understand are critical to effectively deliver online government services.
The goal of electronic government is to help people access government information and services directly – to serve themselves. In today’s fast-paced world, self-service government is critical to citizen productivity. People don’t have time to wait in line or on hold. They want to visit a government website, complete their “task”, and get on with their lives.
Government agencies create and disseminate tremendous amounts of information and data. People often criticize government websites for being bureaucratic, difficult to understand and hard to navigate, in part because many government websites were designed around organizational components, instead of the needs of their public audience. Today, the public demands that government make their information and online services easy to use. They want to get in, get what they want, and get out, quickly.
The key to making online government work is clear communication. Because there is no “human” on the other end of an online interaction, web content (including information, services, and data) must be easy for the average person to understand, navigate and use.
Plain language is critical to effectively deliver online government services to citizens. Clear writing helps citizens understand what they read, so they can easily and quickly complete their government tasks. Delivering government information in plain language saves both citizens and governments tremendous amounts of time and money, improving productivity and satisfaction.
Though there is plain language software that can help government agencies review content, it is not necessary.
Identified problems or limitations
Issues to be addressed:
- Government agencies must review everything on their websites and re-write anything that is not written in language that the intended audience/general public can understand.
- Government web teams must write and edit content using the principles of plain language, and routinely test web content with the intended audience to make sure they can understand it.
- Government managers must understand the importance of plain language writing and support the principle that an organization’s public website must serve the public, and must be written from the public’s point of view.
- Almost anything written or produced today by a government will likely also be posted on a government website. All government writers (not just web teams, but also software developers, attorneys, policy-makers, etc.) should be trained in the principles of plain language writing, to ensure that all content published on government websites is understandable to the general public.
- Webcontent.gov best practice: http://www.usa.gov/webcontent/managing_content/writing_and_editing.shtml
- PlainLanguage.gov: http://plainlanguage.gov/
- Plain English Campaign: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/
- Enhacing Citizens' Web Searches: http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/sweo/public/UseCases/CTIC/
To deliver online services in the language of the citizen, there is no special software or hardware required, no technology involved, but rather just a recognition that government must communicate with its constituents/audiences using words they understand. Government agencies must immediately improve the writing of their web content, especially on the most-used pages, to make government services more effective and efficient.