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Rewriting policy plainly

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design, GOV.UK

Janet wrote recently about how we're presenting policy differently on Inside Government, but what does that mean for individual departments? Paola Wright, Online Policy Desk Officer for the Ministry of Defence (MOD), explains the impact it has had on their work.

After nearly two months of work, all of our policies at MOD are just about ready to be published on GOV.UK. It's taken a lot of hard graft, in a very short space of time, and it's meant big changes to how we approach policy. Although there have been a few hiccups along the way, it's been a success story.

The right team for the job

Some of our policy team decided to take on the task of rewriting content for GOV.UK themselves, but we also worked with GDS to hire professional copywriters to help rewrite the rest.

Writing for the web is very different to writing a document for internal use, especially in a government department. Here, we tend to use specialised language  to talk about what we're doing, which goes against the Inside Government style guidelines.

We needed copywriters who could change complex language and jargon into plain English. They had to be able to condense long documents and communicate very clear messages without losing any of the meaning.

Iterating policy

Copywriters, my team and policy leads all worked closely to iterate each document. Although some people were initially anxious about that process, we demonstrated early on that rephrasing the language doesn't dilute the message.

But at times it's been difficult. As you can imagine, in government the phraseology or a single word can carry great significance, whereas it may not mean much to the general public. So although changing a word may make a sentence more meaningful, that one particular word may have great significance for the department involved, and no other word will do.

For example, we're using the GOV.UK style guide and we're paying close attention to the words to avoid list. These words are vague and confusing, but widely used in policy documents.

Never finished

Communication hasn't always been as frequent as it could have been given the tempo of the project and the need to achieve so much in such a short period of time.

Our biggest task was explaining to our stakeholders that the documents we were rewriting were not the finished products - they were the first of many iterations.

We've had to learn to approach projects in a more agile way. It hasn't always been easy, but it has resulted in clearer content that people can read and understand more easily.

When the Ministry of Defence joins GOV.UK in a few weeks time, you'll be able to see the result of this work and get a much clearer idea of what the MOD is doing. We look forward to your feedback.

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  1. Comment by This week at GDS | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] of Inside Government. John Turnbull from BIS blogged about some of that work earlier in the week, as did Paola Wright from the MOD.  Thanks John and [...]

  2. Comment by Watching Inside Government evolve | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] It wasn’t just the product that became clearer. Some of the communication with GDS has been muddy, as Paola Wright mentioned in her blog post. [...]

  3. Comment by David posted on

    The 'words to avoid' list made me smile. Words to avoid include "promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or something)"

    **** "..... or something" **** !!

    Well that's clear then!

    I'd suggest that if you're going to be prescriptive about what words not to use, then ending with 'or something' doesnt really help somebody trying to follow your Style Guide.

    • Replies to David>

      Comment by nettienwilliams posted on

      Thanks for pointing that out David. We'll change it so it's clearer.

    • Replies to David>

      Comment by Martin Cantor posted on

      Oh and btw, if you haven't already you might want to check out the list of words to avoid that the LGA produced a couple of years ago (and got roundly traduced for in some media)

  4. Comment by Martin Cantor posted on

    Would love to see/hear some more detail about particular issues that recurred, any words or phrases that were particularly tough, any examples of successive iterations you could share.

    • Replies to Martin Cantor>

      Comment by nettienwilliams posted on

      Dear Martin,
      Many thanks for your enquiry. Our policies have not been signed off yet, so I am unable to share iteration examples. Recurrent issues centred around using plain English without diluting the message; for example: ‘Transforming Defence’ is clearly understood within MOD, but does not explain to the general public how we are transforming it. The current plain English title is now longer, but clearer. Specific words such as ‘capability’ were also explained and ‘obligations’ changed to ‘commitments’ to ensure the extent of our involvement is not misrepresented.

      • Replies to nettienwilliams>

        Comment by Martin Cantor posted on

        OK and thanks for expansion. Looking forward to seeing it all.