Regions should focus on clear language

Judith Bayes

Expert in Electronic Administration


Relatively recently, while giving a lecture, I remembered how I met Maria. She is an inspector of the Internal Revenue Service. She reviewed my tax returns and from there began a back and forth of crossed documents until I received the final Resolution and in which she confirmed a sanction imposed on me.

So I drove to the capital, went to the tax office and asked for Maria. I introduced myself and told her "look, I don't understand what you are writing, I don't know what you are asking me, I only know that what you are sending me is not right". Maria's answer, after listening to my arguments, was that even she did not understand what she was writing. In the end, the tax authorities agreed with me and I was not fined because I was able to provide the documentation correctly, because for the first time I understood what the administration was asking me.

Different was the case of Maria Walters, who won her case in the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1998 (Walters v. Reno). The Supreme Court of Appeals found that immigrants subject to deportation based on document fraud charges brought by the Immigration Office (INS) were not afforded due process. The forms used by the Immigration Office to communicate to the plaintiff, Maria Walters, that they could be deported, did not communicate in a simple and plain manner the consequences for her. Thus, the High Court ordered the INS to redo all forms with clear and understandable language, and ordered the INS to refrain from deporting any citizen whose case had been processed using the deficient forms and communications.

The whole situation gave food for thought and research, leading to Barack Obama and the approval, on October 13, 2010, of the Plain Writing Act, which established that communications from the U.S. Federal Government to the public must be written in clear and commonly understandable language. But this initiative did not originate strictly from him. Since the 1970s and until the passage of the Plain Language Act, there had already been initiatives in the United States Government in the form of Executive Orders (Carter Administration) and Memorandums (Clinton Administration) to establish plain language in administrative documents addressed to citizens. And as a result of the approval of the Obama Act, the International Plain Language Day is commemorated on October 13.

But in spite of having an international day, few countries have adopted Plain Language. Among them we find Sweden, England, Australia, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico, a timid guide issued by the European Commission, without much success, and Canada which, as its regulations (1991) directed to public employees, and with the desire to make them empathize with the citizens, say "You may feel frustrated if the information that affects your life is written in such a way that it can only be understood by an expert".

Now that the concept of technological progress is so important for all of us, I believe it is time for a profound reflection. The true revulsive for the regions is not, and will not be, only their technological progress. What is innovative will come from the capacity to discover problems, name them and deal with them. The real change will come from regional governments that make transformations with citizen engagement, understanding the role of the regions as the government of proximity, the one that makes the real bet to create disruptive systems and that especially exercises leadership to transform bureaucracy, automate processes to free resources and devote them where human empathy is most needed and of course change the language that administrations use to address them.  

Clear language is not at odds with legal rigor; clear language avoids disaffection and frustration among citizens; clear language brings us closer and unites us. Clear language in administrations also brings us closer to the fulfillment of the SDGs (targets 16.6 and 16.10) because building efficient and inclusive administrations allows citizens, with the utmost respect, to impose obligations on them and make them guarantors of their rights. In the end, the right to understand what they are telling us, in a direct way and adjusted to our needs, and to be able to give the most accurate answer, should be a priority, since it is consolidated as a new social right. In spite of what one might think, there is no citizen disaffection with the public sector, but rather a lack of interest arising from the hopelessness of feeling the administrations distant, haughty and, on some occasions, unfriendly. The good policy, the close one, is not the one that manages to assert the interests of all, but it cannot have stopped trying; here is the challenge of the regions, to be a truly transforming agent, not only in new public policies but in the proximity of the same with the people.

I had a stroke of luck finding Maria, knowing that it was just that, a stroke of luck. Perhaps it is time that what we seek, find and manage is understandable without depending on a stroke of luck or a court ruling, but rather that it is really the door to true democracy and the consolidation of an inclusive citizenship.


© All rights reserved ORU. Barcelona 2024