Writing for government

Writing for government

The global challenges of the climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic highlight how important government writing skills are. We can help all levels of government work on their communication skills and ensure the public has the information it needs for informed participation.

This article outlines:

  • how government writing differs from plain language
  • why it’s important to learn to write for government
  • where to learn government writing skills.
A professional stands outside a government building and carries writing resources for their government job.

How does government writing differ from plain language?

Government writing seems to prefer a style of language we call ‘officialese’. This style of language is ‘characterisedby pretentiousness, pedantry, obscurity, and the use of jargon.’

But it doesn’t have to use officialese. Government writing can use plain language instead. This means we replace obscurity with concrete and specific language, jargon with everyday words, and pretentiousness with a more friendly tone.

In fact, people have been seeking an alternative to officialese for hundreds of years:

  • 1550s: Edward VI asked for plainer and shorter legislation.
  • 1840s: George Coode, an English social reformer, pushed for clearer laws and legal documents.
  • 1950s: The British Treasury commissioned top civil servant Ernest Gowers to write a book encouraging the government to write more clearly.
  • 1970s–2020s: The Australian Government Style Manual has encouraged writers to use plain language principles.

Plain writing for the government transforms communications.

Governments don’t have to write: ‘Please be advised that the requested records cannot be released as they are exempt pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.’

Instead, they can convey the same message in a more effective way: ‘We can’t send you the information you’ve asked for because it’s protected by the Freedom of Information Act.’

This second version follows top civil servant Ernest Gowers’s advice about effective writing for government, ‘be short, be simple, be human’.

To help you apply a plain language style to your writing, we have our free Australian Style Guide. This resource covers the most common style questions for Australian:

  • communication specialists
  • professionals writing at work
  • students and academics.

What is the importance of effective writing for government?

Learning to write for government is important for internal communication with other civil servants and external communication with the public. Better government communication benefits everyone. It results in:

  • better use of resources
  • higher levels of productivity
  • less writing and reviewing time
  • increased reader engagement
  • increased trust in the government.
Want your writing to be

Turn writing at work into writing that works with our ISO-aligned plain language system.

Plain language allows governments to use their resources better, especially human ones.

For example, in the early days of plain language, the Law Reform Commission of Victoria translated a court summons into plain language. The new form made the government much more efficient and effective. So much so, that the government could reassign 26 staff members. These staff members could then divert their attention where the government needed it.

Plain language allows governments to be more productive.

For example, New Zealand’s Ministry of Internal Affairs improved just 1 application form. The new form reduced errors in completed applications from 66% to 10%. The hours spent contacting applicants to correct their forms can now be spent on activities that benefit the public.

Plain language means governments spend less time writing and reviewing documents.

For example, in our efficiency study, we found that clients who complete a plain language reform program reduce their document drafting time by 50%.

Further, the CEO of a water utility told us she is losing 1 weekend a month to reading board papers written in officialese. But if her organisation wrote in plain language, she wouldn’t need to.

When comparing a plain language version of a medical brochure with its original, comprehension improved, and reading time fell from 14 to 4.5 minutes. That’s a 68% decrease in reading time! For more examples of plain language saving time, check out Dr Joseph Kimble’s book,Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, 2nd edition.

With less time needed for reading and writing documents, government employees can spend more time getting things done for the public. This is one reason the City of Winnipeg plans to adopt a plain language policy and New Zealand passed its Plain Language Act.

Plain language makes people more likely to read and act on your document.

For example, an international study showed that 80% of participants preferred plain language. By responding to reader preferences and using plain language, governments can ensure that their messages get to the public. The public is far more likely to read about new health directives or parking arrangements if this information is easy to understand.

Plain language allows governments to communicate better, which increases the public’s trust in government organisations.

The Edelman Trust Barometer reports that people now trust businesses above government. And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that this is due to a perceived lack of transparency, inclusivity and responsiveness in government communications.

Governments that use plain language can appear more trustworthy by not hiding behind officialese. Plain language also allows governments to connect with their readers by using accessible language and a tone that draws the reader instead of excluding them.

Are there online government writing workshops?

We offer 6  workshops to help governments write:

  • letters and emails
  • briefs and ministerial
  • external policies
  • internal policies and procedures

All our workshops align with Plain language – Part 1: Governing principles and guidelines (ISO 24495-1). For more information about each of these workshops, check our website.

Our workshops are available online and in person wherever you are around Australia. We also have training facilities in most major cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth.

To find the workshop that’s right for you, contact our friendly team today.

Part of the EdventureCo Group​