Local authority websites struggling to hit ‘plain English’ guidelines

In its largest ever local government study, VisibleThread has identified that 82% of local government websites do not meet target readability standards.

The Government Digital Service published its Writing for GOV.UK guide in 2014, which introduced comprehensive guidelines to help writers.

Two years on from that publication VisibleThread analysed up to 100 pages on each of the 191 local authority websites, measuring key metrics including readability, the use of passive language, long sentences and word complexity density.

The key findings from the research are:

  • 82% of local authority websites failed to achieve the target readability score of 60.
  • Only seven 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 two 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 rankings in this extended study. It scored very highly in readability and also ranked in the top ten 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. Overall, 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 five 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 five authorities were:

  1. Sevenoaks District Council
  2. Worcester City Council
  3. Chiltern District Council
  4. Council of the Isles of Scilly
  5. 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 full report can be found here.

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