Government language: a stumbling block between policy and citizens

'Government communication has long been under discussion because of the difficulty citizens experience in understanding the letters sent by the government.' - Michiel Overgaag

Adobe Stock 46080357

Rarther have a stair elevator
A citizen who receives a letter on the mat with the subject line, "You are getting a housing allowance" will usually throw it away unread. But if it had said what this means, namely, "You will get a stair elevator," it would be cause for rejoicing: the municipality is helping you to continue living independently.

Government communication has long been under discussion because of the difficulty citizens experience in understanding letters sent by the government. Language plays a crucial role in government-citizen communication. The ability to convey information clearly is essential to understanding policies, rights and duties. Unfortunately, official language is often used, losing the message and only widening the gap between Political Hague and the citizen.

Letters from the Internal Revenue Service must address 6.8 million individuals and 1.5 million business owners. This is obviously a complicated task. But when you see that in 2021 the Tax Information Line was called more than 10 million times because some things were not entirely clear, you can conclude that the Tax Administration's communication can also improve. Why do government agencies fail to communicate in understandable language?

Avoiding future annoyance
One of the main causes of the use of official language is laziness. Officials are often content to copy legal texts without translating them into understandable language for the citizen. The result is a woolly and incomprehensible text that citizens cannot decipher. In addition, sticking to a pattern plays a role. Many officials are used to communicating in the same way and are reluctant to explore alternatives. This lack of change contributes to maintaining complex language and only makes it more difficult to convey information to citizens.

Officials often focus on legally correct wording rather than comprehensibility. In addition, officials may not have the right expertise to address the target audience at street level. Government agencies should communicate more often at B1 level, which is understandable to the average citizen. A special language coordinator or outside expert could help filter and improve every letter sent from an official organization to citizens. In any case, urgent attention should be given to better government communication to avoid further annoyance and waste of money.