Australian public service writing study shows vast room for improvement
The first study to measure how clearly the Australian public service writes has found major shortcomings.
The 2021 readability scorecard: Australian Government agencies found the top 3 agencies for clear writing were:
1. Australian Securities and Investments Commission
2. Defence Housing Australia
3. Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.
“These 3 agencies wrote clearer, shorter sentences and used less passive voice than 32 other agencies surveyed,” said Chas Savage, the chief executive officer of Canberra consultancy Ethos CRS, which conducted the study.
“But even the best agencies pitched their public documents way above the government’s own recommended Year 7 readability level”, said Mr Savage.
Ethos CRS used clear writing benchmarks recommended by the Australian Government Style Manual and the language analysis platform VisibleThread.
Writers should aim to have no more than 5% long sentences, no more than 4% passive voice sentences and a grade level of 7 or below.
“Achieving the readability benchmark is tough”, said Mr Savage.
“But all governments have to get their messages across to citizens whose literacy levels vary widely,” said Mr Savage. “We know from the Bureau of Statistics that only half of all Australians have ‘adequate or better’ reading skills.”
“Unless government documents are clearly written, citizens are less able to understand their rights and responsibilities.
“If organisations communicate better with all of their users, they will deliver their services better.
“Failure to communicate effectively is a huge invisible cost for government and businesses, one they impose on themselves and others.
“By creating documents that users understand, everyone benefits – organisations and users.”
How the study was conducted
Ethos CRS assessed 136 similar types of documents from 35 departments and agencies with 400 or more staff. We also undertook 2 case studies of large agency websites: Services Australia and the Australian Taxation Office.
We weighted each document for grade or school level, the percentage of long sentences and percentage of active and passive voice equally to produce a readability index. The higher the readability score the clearer the writing.
Based on these three metrics, Ethos CRS calculated a readability index to give a composite, single score that reflects overall readability of each document. The higher the score on this index, the more readable the text. A score of 100 indicates that a document meets recommended readability standards.
The website case studies showed Services Australia scored 119.3, higher than our benchmark of 100. This was more than twice as good as the best document in our document survey, which scored 50.8.
The full report is available at https://ethoscrs.com.au/scorecard