Plain Language Bill and an international plain language standard: progress update

Plain Language Bill

On 23 September 2021, Labour MP Rachel Boyack introduced the Plain Language Bill to Pāremata Aotearoa New Zealand Parliament. If the bill passes through multiple readings, royal assent and into legislation, it’ll legally support plain language writing in official documents and websites.

While it may seem targeted at government agencies, we hope it will encourage and support other organisations to lean into the plain language approach, too.

It’s early days for the bill yet, but a very welcome and exciting time for plain language writers, readers and champions.

Plain Language Bill

International plain language standard

The Plain Language Federation has been working on developing an international plain language standard.

In case you’re not familiar with the federation or the international standard, here’s a quick recap.

  • The Plain Language Federation includes three organisations: the Centre for Plain Language, Clarity, and the Plain Language Association International.
  • They formed a standards committee, including representatives from multiple countries, to work on developing an international plain language standard.
  • Standards experts recommended the committee get the standard accepted in one country first, then have it adapted or accepted in other countries.
  • The committee planned to have the standard accepted in Australia first, which means it would then quite likely be accepted in New Zealand.

For more detail, check out International Plain Language Federation website.

Having an international plain language standard would be an exciting, positive thing for everyone – writers and readers.

But, how’s it all going? Where are we up to?

We’re sure our members would love to know more. So, we asked New Zealand’s Plain Language Federation representative, Lynda Harris, to find out.

Kia ora, Lynda! Please tell us a little about yourself, and how you got involved in creating an international plain language standard.

Kia ora! I’m a long time advocate for plain language and remain as passionate about its benefits today as when my journey began over 30 years ago. I’m Director and CE of Write Limited, founder of the WriteMark Plain Language Standard, and the New Zealand representative for Clarity International. I also set up the annual Plain English Awards years ago. So I guess you could say that clear, useful communication is my thing!

I got involved in creating an international standard way back in 2007, when a group of us from the world’s three main plain language organisations (PLAIN, Clarity, Centre for Plain Language) got together to discuss the idea. Annetta Cheek, veteran US plain language campaigner, and the person largely responsible for the US Plain Writing Act, was the force behind much of that early work on standards. In 2010, our proposals for a definition of plain language, a possible international standard, and related work were captured in what we often call the ‘Options papers’. These are all in the Clarity journal, Issue 64 and are well worth reading for background.

For the past year or so I’ve been working on the Federation’s Training Committee, looking into the feasibility of creating a resource bank that would support the principles in the ISO standard.

How is the standard progressing? Has COVID-19 affected the standard’s progress? And was it accepted in Australia in 2020 as planned?

The standard is progressing well! Or as Christopher Balmford, Chair of the ISO Working group (ISO TC 37 WG 11), said when I checked in ‘All good, full steam ahead!’. The final draft of the standard is 99% agreed and we are expecting ISO to publish it in mid-2022. That’s a bit later than we expected but the delay is not due to Covid. The process is quite complex and good things take time!

Although we originally planned to develop the standard with Standards Australia, and then seek to have ISO adopt it, that plan changed. Standards Australia proposed that ISO develop the standard internationally first. So that’s what happened.

Unfortunately, I was not able to be involved much after that, other than to provide comments on early drafts, because New Zealand is not a Participating Member of the ISO Technical Committee that is developing the standard. I am what’s called an Observing Member, so I can see the developments as they occur.

If the international standard is accepted, what could that mean for New Zealand?

Once the standard is published internationally, any organisation, including government departments, can endorse the standard. But that doesn’t make it mandatory in the way that some standards are — all international standards are voluntary unless they get cited in legislation or regulation.

Another option is that Standards NZ could adopt or adapt the standard, allowing a NZS prefix in front of the ISO standard number. Adopting it means using the standard as is and adapting it means Standards New Zealand could localise it, under certain criteria. This would normally be lead by industry or a regulator and is a fairly costly process. So we’re not sure what that might mean for New Zealand yet but it certainly presents opportunities.

One thing’s for sure though, having an international ISO standard for plain language is a big deal! Having a standard will help professionalise the art and science of plain language and will underpin the worth and credibility of our work.

Here are some presentations on having a plain language standard.

What’s the point ofhaving a standard? - Vera Gergely

Access for All Plain Language Conference - Part 1

Access for All Plain Language Conference - Part 2

In 2018, the federation was asking for letters of support for an international plain language standard from organisations in New Zealand. How did that go? We hope we helped!

At that time, we needed the letters of support as part of the plan to convince Standards Australia to create its own standard. The letters were really helpful, but before too long, Standards Australia decided not to go ahead and instead proposed an international standard to ISO.

What can we, as technical communicators, do to help today?

Join the International Plain Language Federation’s Localization Committee. Anyone can join and you’ll see what other countries plan to do first-hand. Contact the committee chair, Gail has a really useful article in the PLAIN journal below, which is choc full of excellent information about the standard.

PLAIN eJournal - Volume 3, No. 2 2021

How can we keep up-to-date with how it’s going and anything that changes?

Keep an eye on the Federation website. Plus, we’ll be telling everyone once the standard is finally published!

Have you been involved with the Plain Language Bill too, and if so, how so?

Obviously, we are excited and supportive of the bill! At this early stage we are simply being as helpful as possible to the sponsor, MP Rachel Boyack, and are connecting her with other advocates here and overseas. We were thrilled when Rachel was able to speak at the recent Plain English Awards ceremony too. The more people hear about the bill, the better.

I think all of us will be able to play a bigger role when the bill gets to Select Committee stage. Start thinking about those submissions now!

And let’s collectively keep the conversation going. With the spotlight on both the ISO standard and the bill, I can’t help but think of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo’s words ‘Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come’.

Thank you so much for the update, Lynda! We really appreciate it, and we're excited to see what comes next.