Bringing understanding to incomprehensibility

For many government services, the rules and regulations are horribly complicated.  Working out which conditions need to be applied to which people in which circumstances is hard enough.  Explaining that in a way in which normal people can understand can be harder still.

There has been years of sustained effort to make explanations more comprehensible by expressing them in simpler language (to say nothing of the efforts to make things genuinely simpler in the first place).  There are now entire racks of leaflets adorned with the imprimatur of the Plain English Campaign.  That’s no bad thing – although it is one of the reasons why some documents have become physically larger and potentially even more daunting than before – but it is at best a necessary approach, rather than one which can be sufficient.  As the Leitch report on skills reported at the end of 2006, 5 million working age people then lacked functional literacy and 7 million lacked functional numeracy (para 2.11).

Agonising over minor changes of wording (or even wholesale re-writing) as a way of addressing the problem seems to be largely missing the point.  Taking those same words off the printed page and putting them on a web page may make them more helpful for some, but again doesn’t change the nature of the basic problem.  Something more radical is called for.  So let us turn to the world of particle physics.

That’s another area of human endeavour where complicated and unlikely thoughts are expressed in  language which is completely precise, but as completely incomprehensible to those who are not in the know.  The launch of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN this week has brought vast interest not matched by great understanding of what it’s all for.  The BBC had a great documentary which made me think that I might begin to understand this stuff.  But better still, in the wonderful world of YouTube, there is a 4½ minute rap video

I am not sure that the rap explanation of how to complete a tax return would rocket to three million viewings quite as quickly as this one has done, but the principle is the same.  The importance of new media is not that it is new, but that it allows us to change some fundamental things about how service providers communicate with customers and about how governments communicate with citizens – and of course the provision of basic information is only one small part of that.  We can carry on tweaking our leaflets if we must, but the paradigm shift is waiting for us.

Comments

  1. The thing is, I reckon a rap explanation of how to fill in a tax return – if such a thing were even possible – probably would reach such a level of interest. But with it would come (justifiable?) criticism about HMRC staff wasting taxpayers’ money, fooling about on YouTube. With the media in full ‘feral beast’ mode just now, you just wouldn’t get away with it.
    I’ve seen several examples now of government (mainly local, admittedly) trying to be funny on YouTube: the Allerdale litterbug springs immediately to mind. But basing your comms strategy on the cringe factor? Maybe not, eh.

  2. I completely agree – apart from anything else, rap is not a medium well suited to communicating detail, but the tabloid reaction wouldn’t be helpful either.
    So the rap in this post may be a bit of a distraction. The more important point is that we now have ways of helping people who do not deal easily with written words, which are not themselves dependent on finding ways of writing words which somehow magic the problem away (and there’s a sentence which fails every plain English test imaginable).
    There are some examples of toes going into water (many of which I have learned about through your blog), but I can’t easily think of examples which are directly about helping people to get something done. I wrote a while back about a couple of Jobcentre Plus videos – http://strategytalk.typepad.com/public_strategy/2007/12/putting-the-soc.html – which are mainly about selling behavioural change, though with some implied reassurance about the level of pain in the process. But I don’t know whether anybody has tried to go to the next level – demonstrating rather than describing conditions of entitlement to a benefit, for example.

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