restricted access 10 - Improving the Quality of Governmental Documents: A Combined Academic and Professional Approach
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10 Improving the Quality of Governmental Documents: A Combined Academic and Professional Approach Jan Renkema Governmental miscommunication does not necessarily occur more often than miscommunication in institutions like law or health care (Martindale et al. 1992; Sarangi and Slebrouck 1996; Renkema 2003). However, governmental problems with officialese and bureaucratese seem more serious, because all members of a society are confronted several times a year with official documents; hence the popularity of actions like plain language movements and the many attempts to redesign governmental forms and letters. But until now, the results of governmental attempts at plain language have been more or less disappointing. For example, over the past twenty years, in The Netherlands, at least twenty official attempts have been made to clarify official documents (for more information about the research in The Netherlands, see the papers collected in Janssen and Neutelings 2001). A remarkable fact is that the Dutch government decided in 2007 that all governmental forms and letters should be readable for all citizens, without giving a clear framework for the implementation of this major decision. In this chapter I provide a framework that can be used in this endeavour, not only in The Netherlands but also where governments have not yet succeeded in producing clear or plain documents. The notions of document design and document quality are elaborated on from the perspective of governmental communication, before introducing this framework for design and quality research. Two examples of its use in research conducted in collaboration with professionals active in governmental departments follow. The first example is research into tax forms and the second has to do with official letters. Strategies for new research and a plea to combine academic insights and professional experience conclude this chapter. Professionals, especially those with long experience in civil service and legislation, are usually not very enthusiastic when confronted with proposals for 174 Jan Renkema improving documents. In their view, minor changes at sentence and word level will be insufficient to make a document readable, so in many cases the restyling has, as a side effect, content changes. For them, the real problem is not the language but the content: the documents have the same level of intricacy as the society. However, other professionals, those with long experience in public relations and counselling, argue that even minor changes can help or encourage citizens to cope with the intricate content of forms and letters. This controversy means that in research on redesign, it is not enough to look only at the formulation. The content level also has to be taken into consideration. Another intriguing problem is the following. Applied research on institutional communication has resulted in many lists of advice concerning writing good documents. But employees faced with handbooks about style and structure are very rarely in situations that allow them to implement all of this advice in their writing. Even if it was possible to agree about what makes a well-designed document, it remains unclear how to transfer this knowledge to writers in the civil service. Many managers in governmental departments are painfully aware that bad writers will never become good writers. This is the reason that the quest for easy-to-apply rules is never-ending. Thus rules like ‘Always use always “inbetween ” headings in a long letter’ or ‘Use pictures whenever possible’ can be considered as a sort of document ‘make-up’. But poorly written documents may need such make-up. If they look better with some in-between headings and pictures, perhaps the improved look gives readers some support as they attempt to cope with the content. From these two problems it can be deduced that in redesigning documents, content, structure and presentation each play a role in document design. One of the most challenging research problems is determining how these levels interact with the level of formulation. Redesigning documents is one thing, but the redesign is of little use if it does not improve understanding. Over the past decades, research on document quality has focussed mainly on text evaluation. For example, readers might be asked to fill in seven-point scales or to be videoed thinking aloud while filling in a form. However, text evaluation is only one aspect. Research into real understanding seems more important: how many mistakes are made while filling in the old versus the new version of a form? A form with a photograph, for example, could be evaluated as more attractive than a form without pictures, but if the new version allows as...


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