GOV.UK website – a model of clarity, readability, and plain language

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Why don’t other government agencies write as clearly?

Governments around the world have a poor reputation for communicating clearly. Departments and agencies regularly win gobbledegook awards. The public often finds the inflated prose on government websites baffling. So it’s good to highlight a government website that gets it right; a website that consistently writes in plain English with the public in mind. We’re talking about the excellent GOV.UK website – a website that other government agencies can learn from.

We analysed a random page from GOV.UK with StyleWriter – a computerised style checker designed to encourage clarity and plain English.

Web Page analysed: https://www.gov.uk/manage-your-tax-credits

The layout is simple, with ample white space and a clear, unfussy font making it attractive to the eye. Punctuation is minimal and information is in easy-to-read, bite-sized pieces.

When analysed for style and clarity with the StyleWriter plain-English software, the writing comes out at nearly faultless for a public document.

The analysis shows the website uses short average sentences, keeps passive verbs under control, has few style issues and has a very easy reading grade. It gains excellent and good ratings for most measures and is concise with no redundant words. In all, the program finds only nine style issues in the 286-word sample.

How does GOV.UK compare to other government websites?

We surveyed 100 US government websites and found over 90 per cent scored poorly for readability, plain English and style.

And if you dig a little more behind the front pages and look at attachments, you can find gobbledegook. A visit to the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media website uncovered a link to the agency’s terms and conditions for contractors.

Terms and conditions

Here’s a flavour of the sleep-inducing style:

The Supplier shall at all times during the Contract and after its expiry or termination keep secret and not disclose and shall procure that its employees keep secret and do not disclose any information of a confidential nature obtained by reason of the Contract except information which is in the public domain otherwise than by reason of a breach of this provision or in accordance with the order of a court of competent jurisdiction or subject to any obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or any other public law obligations.

The software highlights the dreadful legalese of the document and suggests 800 ways to edit it into plain English.

StyleWriter – from Editor Software can measure the clarity, readability and plain English style of any document and highlights words, phrases or sentences detract from poor style. In all, it searches for over half a million style issues, including:

• Long sentences
• Wordy sentences
• Unreadable sentences
• Passive verbs
• Smothered verbs
• Complex words
• Abstract words
• Overused words
• Legal words
• Clichés
• Wordy phrases
• Overwriting
• Foreign Words
• Unusual, specialist and difficult words

Nick Wright, from Editor Software, believes government agencies can all write the way GOV.UK does. “Most government agencies want to communicate clearly, but all attempts to get public servants to write in clear, plain English have failed. Software offers a solution to this perennial problem. Any government official can download a free trial of StyleWriter (www.editorsoftware.com) and run it through agency documents before posting then on the web. Perhaps if they do, we’ll see more government websites written as well as GOV.UK.

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