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Are Australian Govt websites up to scratch?

By Shannon Williams, Wed 15 Jun 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Australian government websites need to up their game when it comes to readability, with a new report revealing a majority are failing to meet plain English language website guidelines.

According to a new report from quality management firm VisibleThread, 4 out of 5 of Australian Government websites analysed do not meet recommended readability standards.

The report says the Governments of Australia has taken a positive stance on how they should communicate online. The government says it aims to communicate in a clear, concise and well-organised way that benefits all citizens.

In 2015, the Australian Government delivered on this commitment by creating the DTO (Digital Transformation Office) as a part of the Prime Minister’s portfolio. The DTO published the Digital Service Standard, a design guide with specific guidance for clear online writing.

“Sometimes in government people write in convoluted ways using language which hides or confuses the real message they want to convey,” Jay Weatherill, MP and Minister Assisting the Premier in Cabinet, says.

“Plain English saves time and effort – for citizens, the private and community sectors and other parts of government”

However, the report found:


• 79% of Australian Government agency websites sampled failed to achieve the target readability score

• Only 6 out of 28 Australian Government Agencies achieved acceptable readability score.

• No Australian Government website analysed met the target passive language score of 4%

• Despite Social Media communications encouraging brevity, long sentences abound on Government websites. On some websites over 30% of the sentences contained more than 20 words. None of the websites analysed met the target score of 5%.

• The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. Only two out of the 28 Government websites achieved an acceptable score.

In their sample of Government websites, VisibleThread analysed up to 100 pages on each site for these metrics:

• Readability – How readable is the content?

• Passive Language – Active Language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences is passive?

• Long Sentences – What proportion of all sentences are too long?

• Word Complexity Density – How many complex, hard-to-understand words does the content contain?

They sampled these sites between May 9th and May 15th 2016.

High Fliers and Bottom Dwellers - Australia

Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads topped the 2016 Australia Government Agency rankings. It scored very highly in Readability and ranked in the top 10 for all categories. However, the Department can improve its overall clear writing score by reducing sentence length and using active voice.

The South Australia Health Authority also performed well. Readability was slightly under the target score. However, it boosted its overall clarity by achieving target scores for using active voice and short sentences.

Unfortunately, the Australian Electoral Commission website fell well below VisibleThread’s recommended scores in all categories. Incredibly, 33% of all sentences encountered contained more than 25 words. It also had a relatively high score in terms of complex sentence use. These two factors combined affected its overall clear writing score.

Similarly, the Australian Federal Police fared poorly in its use of long sentences. Phraseology was less complex and its use of active voice ensured that it did not hit rock bottom.

“The cost benefits achieved by improving clarity on websites and allowing citizens to complete error-free tasks online are significant,” VisibleThread says.

“Website users can self-serve and avoid costlier means of communication, calling by telephone or face-to-face interactions.

“The fact that such a small percentage of Government Websites have reached an acceptable score is disappointing,” the company says.

“However, Visible Thread’s analysis shows that in many cases, agencies can deliver clearer content, if they improve just one of the four key measures,” it adds.

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