Plain Language Act 2022: Guidance for agencies
Public service agencies have a role in informing the public about any requirements and entitlements that might apply to them. Using plain language helps agencies do this more efficiently and effectively. This helps the public to access services and meet requirements more easily. Providing better, more accessible information improves transparency, open government, and active citizenship. It also helps maintain public trust in government.
Many agencies are already working to improve their use of plain language. The Act encourages consistency across agencies for certain types of documents. Generally speaking, these are documents written in English that set out requirements, entitlements, and educational information for the general public or groups of the public (rather than specific individuals). Documents can include websites. The Act only applies to documents published (online or in print) or substantially revised after it takes effect on 21 April 2023.
The rest of this guidance covers five key steps that agencies should take. It finishes by outlining links between plain language and accessibility and pointing to some ongoing work on accessibility.
1: Appoint a plain language officer
Agencies must appoint a plain language officer. The Commissioner expects agencies to designate existing staff as their plain language officers. Agency heads of communications (or equivalent) already have responsibilities in this area. The plain language officer could be supported by other people across the organisation who share interests, expertise, or responsibilities that relate to plain language. Specific activities of the plain language officer will vary from agency to agency. Their core responsibility is to be familiar with this guidance and help their agency follow it.
2: Provide staff training and resources
Training starts with educating employees about the requirements of the Act. Agencies will have existing channels for communicating with their staff. These may include providing information through:
- drop-in sessions and new staff orientations,
- all-of-staff emails,
- posting stories and resources on intranets, or
- promoting internal style guides.
Further training needs to equip staff with the skills to write in plain language. Some agencies may already provide such training, either through external organisations or tertiary education institutions, or by using their own guidelines and resources.
3: Have a process for taking on public feedback
Agencies need a clear process for receiving feedback on their use of plain language. This will provide valuable insight into how their communications are perceived and could be improved. Many agencies already have channels available to receive feedback from the public. Often this will be an email address published on their website. These are relatively easy to establish.
An agency’s response will depend on the feedback that it receives. It may involve a simple reply like explaining how the Act applies in a particular situation. Or it may involve confirming a change like replacing jargon with a more familiar word.
4: Consider plain language as part of internal processes
Agencies should include plain language expectations in their processes for drafting and quality assurance (including review and feedback). This could be as simple as adopting an existing tool such as the Write Plain Language Standard. The Standard is formatted as a checklist and aligns with international principles of best practice in the use of plain language.
Most agencies have existing material for their staff to use when producing documents. They should check that this includes appropriate information around plain language use. Agencies may develop further internal resources relevant to their specific work and context. These could draw on international principles and resources and may include:
- style guides;
- templates for structure, headings, layout and presentation; and
- profiles of common audiences for that agency and their information needs.
Some agencies are already further along in their use of plain language. For example, the Parliamentary Counsel Office has developed its own plain language standard. This is supported by a checklist and further detailed guidance. The Ministry of Social Development has a quick reference guide on plain language. This appears alongside clear print principles intended to improve accessibility.
5: Report on plain language activity
Agencies must report annually to the Public Service Commissioner on how they have complied with the Act. The Commissioner will contact agencies directly with more detailed information about the timing, process, and content of this reporting.
The Commissioner will compile the information and report to the Minister. The Minister will then provide a copy of the report to the House of Representatives.
Plain language and accessibility
Plain language supports greater accessibility, especially for people with reading difficulties or low vision, or for speakers of languages other than English. There is overlap here with other government resources and work programmes:
- Digital.govt.nz providesaccessibility guidance to support agencies to apply the Web Accessibility Standard.Guidelines for Producing Clear Print are also available. These focus on design decisions such as font, layout and use of colour and contrast.
- The Ministry of Social Development has a work programme on accessibility. This includes a comprehensive Accessibility Guide as well as information on alternative formats.
- The Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill is currently under development. This aims to address concerns around accessibility, including accessibility of government documents.
 Reporting agencies that the Act applies to are defined in s 4. Public service agencies are defined in s 10(a) of the Public Service Act 2020 as departments, departmental agencies, interdepartmental executive board, and interdepartmental ventures.
 Agencies must appoint one or more plain language officers who are responsible for educating agency employees about the requirements of the Act, dealing with feedback from the public about the agency’s compliance with the Act, and ensuring that the agency complies with the act (s 11).
 Those principles are outlined in a range of sources: The International Plain Language Federation; Plain English Commission resources and accreditation criteria; Plain Language Association International (PLAIN); Content Design London Readability Guidelines section on plain English. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is currently developing an international standard on plain language, which will eventually provide a definitive benchmark.