Last updated: 26 April 2023 (by Simon Hertnon)
Latest: Public Service Commission issues guidance for agencies on how to meet the requirements of the Act.
What is the Plain Language Act 2022?
New Zealand’s Plain Language Act 2022 (‘the Act’) requires public servants to use plain language when writing to ‘the public generally’.
Its purpose is ‘to improve the effectiveness and accountability of public service agencies and Crown agents … by [requiring] those documents to use language that is: (a) appropriate to the intended audience; and (b) clear, concise, and well organised.’
The Act also aims ‘to improve the accessibility’ of information, including for ‘people with disabilities’ (such as poor eyesight).
The bill was first tabled in 2012.
September 2021 Bill drawn in ballot
October 2022 Bill is enacted
April 2023 Act came into force
What does the Act require?
The Act requires 69 ‘reporting agencies’, including every public service department (eg the Inland Revenue Department, the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Health) and every Crown agent (eg, the ACC, Maritime New Zealand, NZTA, NZTE), to ‘take reasonable steps to ensure that all relevant documents for which [the agency] is responsible use plain language.’
‘Relevant documents’ are those written in English that (in summary) provide information to the public generally. So internal documents and correspondence are both excluded. However, the skills required to write ‘clear, concise, and well organised’ documents are the same for any written output.
The responsibility (‘duty’) for meeting this requirement ultimately lies with the Public Service Commissioner in the case of public service departments; and the ‘responsible Minister’ of each Crown agent.
Who does the Act impact?
Meeting the requirements of the Act impacts most of the 115,000-odd public servants who work for public service departments or Crown agents. Although a minority (perhaps only 20%) work directly on producing public-facing documents, the majority are involved in developing the information and advice that forms the content of the ‘relevant documents’.
Ultimately, the Act impacts all New Zealanders, because we all need clear and accessible information about essential public services, including healthcare, education, transport networks, social services, and the tax system.
Why does the Act matter?
The Act matters because the comprehensibility and accessibility of all information matters, particularly information coming from public servants to the public they are employed to serve. The Act also matters because clear communication is integral to the cost-effective provision of any service. Information that is unclear, overly long, or poorly organised creates unnecessary cost, confusion, and distraction.
The Act is New Zealand’s first formal instrument to require the public service to produce clear information. As such, the Act is similar to a professional standard, such as a food-safety standard or a product-quality standard (and should, in our opinion, be supported by a simple, non-binding, clear communication standard that applies to every document produced by knowledge workers across every sector).
Who enforces the Act?
The Act came into force on 21 April 2023, and the responsibility for enforcement lies with:
- The Minister for the Public Service (currently, the Hon Andrew Little)
- The Public Service Commissioner*
- One or more ‘Plain Language Officers’ from ‘within or outside [each reporting] agency’
* The Public Service Commissioner is responsible for issuing ‘guidance on how reporting agencies comply with [the] Act’. was issued on 20 April 2023, and was developed .
How is the Act being implemented?
The Public Service Commission (PSC) is responsible for implementing the Act, and convened a team to draft guidance for how the 69 reporting agencies comply with the Act.
This team consulted with me and Lynda Harris (from Write) and issued this guidance for agencies on 20 April 2023.
The PSC intends to build-on clear communication skills that thousands of public servants have already developed. As Deputy Commissioner, Hannah Cameron, said at the 2022 Plain Language Awards:
‘We’re going to try to implement [the Act] in a non-bureaucratic, clear, direct way. We’ll be using networks that already exist across the public service to share good practice…’Hannah Cameron, Deputy Commissioner, Public Service Commission
The PSC’s implementation of the Act should also involve:
- designing the roles and selection criteria of the Plain Language Officers
- training the Plain Language Officers to assess documents and support the development of plain language skills
- designing the annual reports that each reporting agency must provide to the Commissioner
- designing the annual report that the Commissioner must provide to the Minister for the Public Service
Ultimately, the Act needs to fulfil its intent to benefit New Zealanders by measurably improving ‘the effectiveness and accountability of public service agencies and Crown agents’. Fortunately, as I have discovered from many years of teaching plain language skills to public servants, it is not difficult to show how ‘clear, concise, and well organised’ information delivers more value for less cost than unclear, verbose, poorly-organised information.
If you have any questions about the Act that are not covered above, please contact me by email at simon[at]nakedize.com, or reach out through LinkedIn.
Plain language training resources
Download the Nakedize one-page introduction to the Plain Language Act (PDF), including a free plain language Assessment tool
The Write Plain Language Standard (free)
The Nakedize Business and Government Writing Essentials public one-day course (hosted by Kāpuhipuhi Wellington Uni-Professional)
Next courses: 23 May, 24 May (full), 16 August
For private (in-house) courses, contact Nakedize
The Nakedize Writing Essentials private one-day course
Clear Concise Compelling plain language guidebook by Simon Hertnon (print and PDF editions available)