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UK Local Authority websites struggle to hit plain English guidelines

In its largest ever Local Government study, VisibleThread identified that 82% of Local Governments websites do not meet target readability standards

Cambridge UK, Monday 5th September 2016. VisibleThread, a global leader in content quality management, has released an updated readability report which covers 191 Local Government websites.

UK Government’s Digital Service published its Writing for GOV.UK guide in 2014. In it, there are comprehensive guidelines to help writers, clearly stating that:

“Plain English is mandatory for all of GOV.UK… Plain English is the whole ethos of GOV.UK: it’s a way of writing.”

VisibleThread analysed up to 100 pages on each of the 191 websites for the following key metrics:
• Readability – How readable is the content?
• Passive Language – Active Language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences is passive?
• Long Sentences – What proportion of all sentences are too long?
• Word Complexity Density – How many complex, hard-to-understand words does the content contain?

The key findings are as follows:
• 82% of Local Authority websites failed to achieve the target readability score of 60.
• Only 7 out of the 191 Local Authorities analysed (3.6%) met the target passive language score of 4%.
• Long sentences are common on Local Authority websites. On some websites over 30% of the sentences contained more than 25 words. Only a dismal 2 of the websites analysed (1%) met the target score of 5%.
• The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. More encouragingly, 25 out of the 191 Local authority websites (13%) actually met or exceeded the target score.

High Fliers and Bottom Dwellers
South Tyneside Council topped the 2016 UK Local Government rankings in this extended study. It scored very highly in Readability. It also ranked in the top 10 for three out of the four scoring categories. However, the Local Authority can improve its overall clear writing score still further by reducing its use of complex language.

Unfortunately, the Malvern Hills District Council website fell well below VisibleThread’s target scores in all categories. Amazingly, 31% of all sentences encountered contained more than 25 words. It was also in the bottom three for the use of passive voice and sentence complexity. These three factors combined affected its overall clear writing score.

The Top 5 UK Local Authorities were:
1. South Tyneside Council
2. Eastbourne Borough Council
3. London Borough of Hackney
4. Durham County Council
5. Huntingdonshire District Council

The bottom 5 authorities were:
187. Sevenoaks District Council
188. Worcester City Council
189. Chiltern District Council
190. Council of the Isles of Scilly
191. Malvern Hills District Council

“Despite UK Government taking a strong stance on readability by publishing its ‘Writing for Gov.uk guide, our analysis clearly shows that UK Local Authorities still have a lot of work to do,” said Fergal McGovern, CEO of Visible Thread. “With the exception of a few Local Authorities, Government websites continue to confuse visitors, which lead to elevated customer support costs.”

The cost benefits that can be realised achieved by improving website clarity, allowing citizens to understand and complete error-free operations online, are considerable. Website users no longer need to use other means of communication, such as telephone calls or face-to-face visits, to clarify information. The fact that such a small percentage of Local Authority websites have successfully adopted the Writing for Gov.uk guidelines is disappointing. However, Visible Thread’s analysis shows that, in many cases, efforts are required in only one or two of the four key areas to deliver a massive improvement in overall readability.

The full report can be found here:
The VisibleThread Website Index, United Kingdom Local Authorities 2016 – Q3 Update: http://info.visiblethread.com/UK-Local-Authorities-Website-Clarity-Index-16

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