Between Ritual and Reality

We have a new Federal government in Australia. Are they going to be better than the last lot at communication with people? The rhetorical signs look promising, the practice remain to be seen.

Government communication with the people takes many forms. The most visible manifestation of government communication is concerned with ritual: all the way from the high public ritual of apology to the stolen generations of aboriginal children, to the more mundane media rituals telling us all to stop smoking, stop taking drugs, dob in a suspected terrorist, trust the government to look after our rights at work, and so on. Do these communications bring about desirable social change? The balance of evidence and sound argument suggests not (Shrensky 1998). But then, faced with situations over which governments sometimes have little control, these rituals serve to tell us that our government cares, and the display of dramatic images and narratives through TV and other media, often at great expense, is a demonstration of that caring. At the end of the day, as with other rituals, the government can claim We tried, we did our best. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between genuine caring and mere tokenism, but that is in the nature of ritual

A far more direct though less publicly visible communication between government and people takes place through the many forms and letters we each have to deal with. Year after year, we each fill out many forms at the request or insistence of government agencies, and we receive and try and make sense of many letters from government agencies. In this area of communication the evidence tells a more promising story than the evidence from ritual.

Back in the late 1980s, we undertook a large number of studies of forms for our governments and businesses. Many of these have been reported in case histories and other publications (Sless 1999a). The conclusion from this work, as we explained at the time, was that it was technically possible to make form filling easy for people, provided certain good forms design methods were used and rigorously followed. We estimated that errors in forms completion due to design faults in the form—one of the simplest measures of a form’s effectiveness—could be reduced to less than 1%. That is, in a sample of 100 completed forms that had been well designed, only one of those forms would have a completion error in it that could be attributable to the design of layout or wording. This finding was based on research into well-designed paper forms. For a variety of reasons, we would expect a slightly better performance from internet forms following the same rigorous good forms design methods.

The same is the case for letters. By the mid-1990s we had undertaken a similarly large number of studies of ‘standard’ letters (Sless 1999b). These are the sort of letters that individuals receive from agencies such as Taxation, Health, and Social Security—produced by the million, but customised for each recipient. When people read and then act on letters, there is not necessarily a visible trace left, as there is in forms. None the less, in testing we have consistently demonstrated that well-designed letters can be made extremely easy for literate people to read and act on, if the appropriate rigorous design methods are applied. . The minimum target performance level we look for is that any literate person should be able to find 90% of what they are looking for in such letters and act appropriately on 90% of what they find. These are minimum targets, and in practice we would aim above this performance level. Evidence collected after such letters are implemented confirms the test data.

So how well do government agencies perform today when it comes to forms and letters? The answer is: appallingly. As an example, last year we tested a government form which has to be completed by families and discovered that, in attempting to complete the form, every person made multiple mistakes that were directly attributable to poor design. This form had been ‘designed’ using the standard public service methods . In other words, the problem is systemic.

Letters present much the same picture. It doesn’t even need our research to demonstrate the point. Ask anyone you know who has ever had a letter from the Taxation Office or Centrelink about their experience in trying to make sense of and act on such correspondence.

So far successive governments in Australia at federal, state and local levels have failed to address these systemic problems of poor communication. Occasionally well designed forms and letters do get produced, but this is against a general background of appallingly low standards. Will our new federal government do any better? Let’s wait and see.

Sless, D. (1999a). Public forms: designing and evaluating forms in large organisations. In,H. Zwaga, T. Boersema, & H. C. M. Hoonhout (Eds.), Visual Information for Everyday Use: Design and Research Perspectives. pp. 135-153. Taylor & Francis.

Sless, D. (1999b). The mass production of unique letters.Writing Business: Genres, Media and Discourses. pp. 85-99. Longman.