Local government websites criticised for not using plain English

A new study has found that UK local government websites are failing to meet standards for communicating in plain English.

Despite clear guidelines that stress the importance of plain English in government communications, 82% of the local councils in the study are failing to achieve a 'readability score' of 60 or more. A readability score of more than 60 usually means that 13- to 15-year-old students can easily understand the text.

The study was carried out by VisibleThread, a company that specialises in the quality of website content. The research analysed up to 100 pages on each of almost 200 local authority websites, looking at four main areas:

  • How easy the website text is to read
  • The percentage of sentences using passive language, rather than clearer, active language
  • The percentage of long sentences
  • The number of complex words.

The study highlighted some common problems in local government communications. For example, only seven of the 191 websites analysed met the company's target of 4% for passive language.

The research also found that many local authorities use long sentences. On some of the websites analysed, more than 30% of sentences contained more than 25 words.

Fergal McGovern, CEO of VisibleThread, noted that despite the government’s stated stance on readability, “UK Local Authorities still have a lot of work to do.” 

“With the exception of a few Local Authorities,” said McGovern, “Government websites continue to confuse visitors.”

VisibleThread pointed out that confusing website visitors can lead to higher customer support costs for councils.

However, by working to make websites clearer, local councils can make big savings. Clearer text helps people understand information and carry out processes online without making mistakes, which means councils don't have to spend as much time and money providing support.

The best-performing council in the study was South Tyneside, which scored particularly highly in readability and was in the top 10 in three out of the four research categories.

The worst-performing was Malvern Hills District Council, which failed to meet the study’s targets in all categories. The council also scored in the bottom three for using passive language and complicated sentences.

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