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Plain-language policy puts citizens’ needs first

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If a city councillor is relying on news articles to translate municipal reports, there’s a problem.

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Opinion

If a city councillor is relying on news articles to translate municipal reports, there’s a problem.

“I’ll be frank,” Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes told colleagues recently. “I get more clear information out of media than (from) some of these convoluted, bureaucratic reports.”

Ms. Lukes has been calling on city council to adopt a plain-language policy for all public reports, letters, notices and external communications since last spring. The issue finally appears to be gaining momentum, with a full report on the policy expected later this year.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

City Coun. Janice Lukes (Waverley West)

City Coun. Janice Lukes (Waverley West) is one of six incumbent councillors currently running unopposed for re-election in this fall’s civic election. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Clear, concise writing isn’t just a matter of style. In the case of Winnipeg’s municipal government, it’s an issue of accessibility and transparency.

Formal, flowery and jargon-filled prose may have a place in literature or technical manuals, but it’s wholly unhelpful when discussing such fundamental ideas as garbage collection and snow clearing. If something affects the day-to-day lives of citizens — which, arguably, everything discussed at city hall does — it should be communicated in a way all citizens can understand.

Ironically, the city is currently mired in a bylaw comprehension debacle of its own making.

Last week, the public works committee was directed to reconsider imprecise wording in a bylaw regarding snow clearing, which appears to threaten fines for residents who shovel snow from public sidewalks, including in front of their own homes.

The issue stems from a situation earlier this winter that saw vigilante shovellers clearing snow and ice from local bike lanes. The wording of a single related bylaw has been discussed and voted on multiple times in the last two months. This is not a good use of council’s time.

Better time management is one of the recognized benefits of a plain-language policy. Clear writing requires less explanation, which results in fewer phone calls, emails and letters from confused citizens. The reduced burden on 311 operators would be a cost-saving side-effect for the city.

Plain writing has been a legal requirement since 2010 for government workers in the United States, where clear and simple communication is seen as “essential to the successful achievement of legislative and administrative goals.” Citizens are better able to access services and are more likely to follow the rule of the law if they understand how those services and laws work.

In British Columbia, content on the provincial government’s website is required to follow basic plain language principles: simple sentences, active voice, straightforward explanations and common words. The target audience is top of mind in this style of writing, leaving internal acronyms and program names out of the mix.

Information is presented for a Grade 8 reading level and is organized in a common-sense way, with descriptive headings, short paragraphs and skimmable lists.

Complicated language is, by dint of its complexity, a form of gatekeeping: those who understand are allowed to participate in the discussion and those who don’t — even if the matter directly affects them — are forced to the sidelines.

It hinders accessibility for non-English speakers and others, while creating unintended transparency issues. If a document is cryptic, it might seem the author is attempting to hide something from the reader — even if that’s not the case.

Plain language is easier to translate, comprehend and write. It pulls back the curtain on government processes and enables better civic engagement. Coherent wording allows citizens to participate fully in an institution that is built to serve them.

Plainly put, language is crucial to the public awareness and engagement that are foundational to democracy. The city would benefit greatly from a communication policy that puts Winnipeggers first.

History

Updated on Monday, January 23, 2023 9:34 AM CST: Fixes web headline

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