agency website readability falls

Notwithstanding endeavors to eschew obfuscation, website readability drops

More than five years after President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, the readability of federal agency websites has gotten worse. The complex, “government-ese” language not only obscures communications, but it also costs agencies money as they clarify the message through different channels and respond to misunderstandings, according to a recent report.

The 2016 U.S. Government Plain Writing Index compares this year’s findings to the index published in 2011, just after the Plain Writing Act of 2010 began requiring clear communication practices and plain language.  It was compiled by VisibleThread, which used its enterprise-grade document content analysis solution and a database of complex words published by to produce the data for the Index.

The report finds that despite modest improvements with regard to passive voice and long-sentence frequency, federal agency communication is regressing overall. Measures of average complexity across the Index have more than doubled, and readability has gone up a full grade level.

The follow-up analysis of the 29 federal agency sites evaluated up to 100 pages on each website against  standards of readability , use of passive language, frequency of long sentences and density of complex words.  The rankings were based on an ideal readability score of 50, which translates to an eighth-grade reading level containing less than 5 percent passive language and long sentences.

The top-rated agencies were the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Mint, the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau tied for fifth. USGS was one of only a few agencies that used acceptable levels of passive voice, and the U.S. Mint was the only agency to earn an acceptable readability score of 50. Both agencies, however, had a fewer web pages included in the analysis -- around 20 rather than the 100 pages analyzed for other agency websites.

The agencies at the bottom of the bunch include the Health Resources Services Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Services, the FBI, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation and the lowest-ranked agency, the Community Oriented Policing Services.

The Index results “should give people cause for concern as quality of communication has a direct impact on government costs, particularly for agencies responsible for overseeing compliance” said VisibleThread CEO Fergal McGovern. “Poor communication correlates with higher administrative costs, increased litigation and lower revenues, and yet it’s one of the easiest and least costly variables governments can address.”

To help writers present clear prose and comply with the Plain Writing Act, some agencies have developed tools to help. The Centers for Disease Control, which placed seventh for content clarity, created the CDC Clear Communication Index, a widget that helps staff members assess the readability of their writing.

The CDC Index evaluates content for print and on the web, in social media, podcast scripts and infographics. It evaluates the original material and scores it based on its presentation of the main messages. It also shows content developers where changes can be made to better communicate with intended audiences. The widget also can help in the design a new communication product or in the measurement of its effectiveness.

The General Service Administration’s 18F, meanwhile, provides a Content Guide to help writers create easy-to-understand content, with specific advice on active voice, duplication, punctuation, voice and tone. It even includes guidance on formatting and the use of images and trademarks.

Agencies can dramatically improve the clarity of their communications by focusing on the areas that need improvement – often in compliance-related writing, according to the VisualThread analysis -- and clarifying online instructions so visitors can find information or complete tasks without making phone calls to the agency.   

According to VisibleThread, many of today’s website administrative tools  -- Google Analytics, content management systems and automation platforms  -- focus on the management of digital assets and content, but lack the ability to look at the quality of the content, leaving the evaluation of readability to humans.

Automated tools that assess language can help agencies improve the quality of their communications, the firm argued, benefiting both government and public it serves.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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