Keep it simple, city
Council looks to clean up its act on jargon, bureaucratic gobbledygook
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City hall is looking at weeding out jargon, technical terms and other unclear language from city communications, with the goal of helping the public better understand them.
Last spring, Coun. Janice Lukes successfully lobbied council’s executive policy committee to order a report on the topic. Lukes argues that using “plain language” in all public reports, letters, notices and other external communications is needed to ensure all Winnipeggers understand the work of their civic government.
“(For) many, many of the residents I work with, English is not their first language. We are focused on growing (Winnipeg’s population) through immigration…We have to be able to communicate (with everyone),” said Lukes.
She noted it’s not just newcomers from other countries who may be confused by certain city publications. Despite being a councillor since 2014, Lukes said she sometimes needs newspaper reports to help sort out confusion about details that were initially shared through published city reports.
“I’ll be frank, I get more clear information out of media, than some of these convoluted, bureaucratic reports,” she said.
The Waverley West councillor said ensuring the clarity of communications the municipal government shares with the public could require the city to enhance its staff training and/or hire more staff.
Lukes believes city messages and rules can be most confusing when writers use too many acronyms, vague terms or highly technical phrases.
While she expects some documents may need to include specific legal language or otherwise be difficult to explain, Lukes said the city should strive to ensure as many residents as possible can understand all public documents related to city bylaws, rules and policy updates.
She said communications about the city budget and bylaws could greatly benefit from the use of simplified terms. For example, two city departments recently had to consult each other to confirm that a bylaw does not prohibit Winnipeggers from voluntarily shovelling public sidewalks and that residents don’t risk being fined if they do so, Lukes noted.
She said other bylaws, such as those setting the rules on posting business signs, have triggered many questions, which helped motivate her to raise the motion.
“I was fielding and trying to decipher so many bylaws and (there were) so many questions… It’s complicated for me and I’m working in this realm every day,” she said.
Coun. Markus Chambers echoed the sentiment that using plain language is becoming increasingly important because Winnipeg’s population growth primarily comes from immigration.
“It’s (about) putting in a different style of writing to ensure that the technical aspects of what you’re writing can be… distilled down to something that is digestible and understandable by everybody who’s reviewing it,” said Chambers.
Coun. Brian Mayes said he has wondered if the language used in city reports and notices about zoning changes, which can rely heavily on acronyms and abbreviations, might sometimes prevent some residents from taking more interest in city hall matters.
“Reading some of the reports that we get… you still just wring your hands sometimes at the ambiguity of things or the use of jargon that is familiar to the report writers that isn’t familiar to the councillors or the public. That can be very off-putting,” said Mayes.
He noted questions at committee meetings have sometimes been devoted to determining the meaning of statements in reports.
In April 2022, council’s executive policy committee approved Lukes’ motion to create a plain language communication policy, with a report due back on the topic in about six months. However, city officials confirmed Friday the report is not complete and staff will ask for more time at the Jan. 17 EPC meeting.
The city’s communications department declined to comment further on the matter until a report is ready for council to consider.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.