One sentence does not a paragraph make: language and the public service

An acknowledgment: the following is filled with hypocrisy given my inability to use simple language and past discretions doing exactly what I argue against.

I was half way through a rather dull post about 457 visas when I read something remarkable. The following is advice on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection website:

“Standard business sponsors are required to test the local labour market prior to lodging a nomination and, on implementation of the LMT condition, must provide information with their nomination about their attempts to recruit Australian workers and how they have determined on the basis of these attempts that there is no suitably qualified and experienced Australian citizen, Australian permanent resident or eligible temporary visa holder available to fill the position.”

For those counting, that was 70 words. It took me three goes and I understand what most of the jargon means.

I haven’t highlighted this sentence to pick on the anonymous author. From my experience browsing government websites, this is an accurate representation of the bureaucratic genre. I imagine the author was under pressure to write thousands of words on 457 visa regulations, then get the words approved by both management and the communications team. Oh, and don’t forget the web area whose style guide may differ from the communications style guide.

Instead, I see this sentence as reflective of its environment. An environment where reading does not occur for pleasure but for the sole purpose of providing information. An environment reflective of multiple clearance points and style guides, where error is frowned upon while excellence mostly goes unrewarded.

Many people will argue this type of language is not a problem when compared to asylum seeker policy and granting visas. Arguing against this either/or construction is difficult and I would fail if I tried. Asylum seeker policy is more important than 70 words sitting on a website befuddling the reader.

Yet this line of argument does not reflect the reality of the modern public servant. Across the public service, staff deal with the mundane as well as public policy nightmares. Financial accruals, future budgets, corporate strategies, planning documentation and performance management tools are but a few of the truly incredible variety of documents to pass through inboxes. Should these less visible tasks also be compared to asylum seeker policy? While they can be put off until the latest crisis has wrapped up, they require attention eventually.

This argument does not make the words quoted above important. Perhaps these other tasks are, along with important policies, priorities over website language. Before we move onto importance though, how can sentences like this exist? Apart from the often rushed nature of creating public information, I think there are a couple of main reasons.

No-one is taught how one should write as a public servant. The one day course many attend at great expense does not count as the content reflects widgets and outputs, as opposed to process.

While you have to pass a multiple choice questionnaire about using a credit card, mostly anyone can post words on a website accessed by millions each year. Even a rudimentary set of rules – i.e., active, not passive – is missing. I was lucky enough to have three colleagues who would pull this sort of stuff up but I feel this was a rather unique team. My writing is often riddled with mistakes, passivity and almost mumbled onto the page. One of the elements of proper teamwork is the comfort you feel when asking for assistance on personal weaknesses.

I believe this lack of teaching is allowed to occur as the consequences of poor language remain unseen. This is not the case if you are drafting legislation but certainly is if your job is to pump out responses for the government about how to lodge valid visa applications. Businesses and migrant agents scrolling through the 457 visa section of the immigration website are not in the position to provide feedback on their experience. Even if they are, whoever wrote the original words is likely the very same person responding to any feedback.

So is the language of the public service important or is this simply an unfair rant? To be honest, I’m not sure there is an answer. I think it does as complexity arises from what should be straight forward description. Readers glazing over the detail, submitting incomplete applications. Frustrations rising both from the people trying to use the public service and within the public service itself. None of this is proof nor is it quantifiable.

That said, any ‘solution’ to this issue is itself complex. Micromanaging employees, track changes in documents back and forth over emails and a sense of pettiness brewing about why this is required in the first place.

To end on a rather patronising, far from inspirational note, here is how the words quoted at the top could read:

“Employers must advertise vacant jobs before using the 457 visa program. To prove this, detail on attempts to recruit domestically should be provided as well as an explanation about why these attempts were unsuccessful. Domestic workers include Australian citizens, permanent residents and some types of temporary visa holders (see below for which visa types).”

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