30 per cent of Dutch citizens find government texts too complex

Dr. Henk Pander Maat
Dr. Henk Pander Maat
At least 30 per cent of the Dutch population has difficulty with government texts. Communications such as letters and emails are difficult to understand due to abstract or unfamiliar words and long sentences. Many readers are not sure what to do after reading the text. This is according to the ’Monitor Begrijpelijkheid Overheidstesten’ (Monitor Comprehensibility of Government Texts), a study of more than two hundred texts on payment or care and support. These are texts that citizens encounter on paper or online in their contact with the government or municipality.

Three research methods

Commissioned by the Taalunie , with support from the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations , Utrecht University and HAN University of Applied Sciences measured the comprehensibility of government texts. For this purpose, over seventy government organisations provided texts on payment or care and support.

The strength of the study lies in the combination of three research methods: automatic text analysis (LiNT), check interviews (by government communication professionals) and reader surveys (with participants varying in background and reading skills).

Shorter sentences by themselves do not make a text comprehensible

Henk Pander Maat is associate professor of Communication and Information Sciences and one of the authors of the monitor. Besides communication around payments, he examined letters from municipalities about the Social Support Act (Wmo).

"Government communication often deals with situations where scarce facilities are granted or not granted under conditions. That complicates such communication. By looking at texts in different ways, both with software and with ’real’ readers, we get a good view on where there is room for improvement."

And improvement is already there in some ways, Pander Maat notices. "I have noticed that a lot of work is being done on sentence structure: I see far less long sentences and sentence braces." But short sentences are no guarantee for a comprehensible text. "In order for a text to be comprehensible, it is also important to have to give a definition of difficult terms and not use too many synonyms."

In an attempt to be transparent, governments give far too much information in their letters. That could make you lose track as a reader.

Dr. Henk Pander Maat

User perspective

The monitor recommends scrutinising communication with citizens as a process. How do the texts fit together and what can be improved in conjunction? The recommendation in the monitor is to design communication processes from the user perspective.

What further strikes researcher Pander Maat is that difficult public communication can often be traced to the complex organisation behind a letter. "In an attempt to be transparent, governments sometimes give far too much information. Many steps and agencies involved are mentioned, which makes it hard to keep track as a reader."

"We look at whether readers can find, understand and apply information. The trouble starts with finding the information, because the government agency in question wants to give too much context. There is a lot of thinking from the sender’s point of view and little from the receiver’s." It is not only the use of words and the structure of texts that is important, the tone also matters. "And that tone could certainly be friendlier. We rarely hear back in the research that texts are considered too nice."