Tweed Shire Council takes plain English gold

Tweed Shire Council achieves 2 gold-level certifications for plain English

Congratulations to Tweed Shire Council which, in 2021, achieved gold-level certification with PlainLanguagePro for two major documents. Tweed demonstrated its commitment to plain English in both its website and its revised Drought and Water Restrictions Policy.

This makes Tweed Shire Council the first council in NSW to achieve gold-level certification with PlainLanguagePro, and the first council in Australia to certify two documents in one year.

For Tweed Shire Council, plain language certification is part of its commitment to communicating clearly with residents. Their goal is to make sure residents can easily find and understand the information they need any time they interact with council.

Plain language is about communication, not perfection

Tweed’s PlainLanguagePro gold-level certification acknowledges council’s effort to communicate clearly and simply with residents.

It means council has carefully considered what questions residents ask and written documents that answer those questions in the clearest way possible. It also means council has made every effort to ensure its content and construction are correct.

But of course certification doesn’t guarantee perfection – and perfection isn’t the primary focus. Certification is about recognising a genuine effort to communicate clearly, in a way that acknowledges grammatical correctness as necessary but not sufficient for clear communication. Sadly, certification doesn’t find hidden typos! (And, if I’m honest, I have a nasty habit of missing them too.)

To achieve gold-level certification, Tweed Shire Council needed to focus on three different aspects of communication:

  1. The text itself – by paying attention to purpose, content, and meaning (including the order of ideas, ease of navigation, use of headings, sentence construction, word choice, and all those little details that matter when you’re writing clear content)
  2. Readers’ needs – by conducting initial research with the people who use their documents
  3. Readers’ reactions – by conducting user testing and incorporating readers’ feedback into the final document.

Ultimately, plain English asks a simple question: can most readers find and understand the information they need the very first time they access this document?

How Tweed achieved plain English in its website

Tweed Shire Council’s website redevelopment started in late 2019, with a commitment to restructure the site in response to users’ needs, reduce the total number of pages, and rewrite the content in line with plain English principles.

By the time the new website was launched in June 2021, the website team had:

  1. Reduced the website from 530 to 350 pages
  2. Improved searchability, accessibility, and usability
  3. Rewritten the most commonly accessed pages.

Plain English writing of the website remains a work in progress – as it does with any large website. A website is a living document that needs constant checking, updating, and refining.

How Tweed achieved plain English in its water policy

Tweed Shire Council first produced a Drought and Water Restrictions Policy in 2009. It was a complex document, written to guide internal content experts and decision makers. The original writers didn’t anticipate that residents might need to use it.

But water restrictions are a major issue for Tweed Shire, and residents need access to clear information about what they can and can’t do at different levels of water restriction. This means council needs a clear policy that leaves no room for confusion. The policy becomes the basis for all communication with residents about water restrictions.

During 2021, council revised its Drought and Water Restrictions Policy based on extensive consultation with content exerts, stakeholders, and residents. The result is a clear, simple policy that incorporates an easy-to-navigate water-use chart.

Tweed Shire Council has four levels of water restrictions. With the new policy, it’s easy for any water user to follow the colour coding and understand exactly how they’re allowed to use water based on current restrictions.

Listening to content experts and users

One of the problems with complex information is that content experts can’t predict the problems readers will experience in accessing and using the information. Content experts simply know too much, and they have trouble remembering what it’s like to not know.

But when it comes to plain English, content experts can’t be ignored. They’re the ones who understand the complex issues about accuracy and content nuance. And, as many editors know from bitter experience, it’s all too easy to introduce changes that appear to create simplicity but actually change the content.

Of course it’s also important to gather feedback from document users, but they don’t know what they don’t know. So while they can identify problems, they can rarely suggest solutions.

To address these concerns, Tweed Shire Council used an iterative, multi-level approach to reviewing the content for both the website and the policy. They gathered feedback from:

  1. Content experts (for the website, this included the various council departments who ‘own’ the content on each page; for the policy, this included water specialists both within council and externally)
  2. Writing specialists (both the website and policy were edited by council’s internal communication team and then reviewed by an external specialist (that’s where I come in))
  3. Document users (including community members and stakeholders with particular interest in the content).

This feedback was conducted in cycles so that changes could be incorporated then considered (to make sure content changes didn’t create new problems).

Some examples of how the text changed

Perhaps the most obvious illustration of Tweed’s commitment to plain English is to provide some examples for comparison. Here are some of my favourites.

OLD: Example from Version 1 of the Drought and Water Restrictions Policy
These restrictions are for implementation only during periods when the longevity of the bulk water supply is threatened – most often related to drought periods – and would be implemented via a public notice from Council for connected properties to restrict water use.

NEW: Example from the current Drought and Water Restrictions Policy
Water restrictions are implemented when the demand for water is greater than the actual or anticipated supply. This happens mostly in drought, however there are other circumstances that can trigger restrictions.

OLD: Example from Version 1 of the Drought and Water Restrictions Policy
In designing restrictions, it is important to recognise that the implementation of a particular level of restrictions is dictated by the need to achieve a predetermined demand reduction target at a particular dam level.

NEW: Example from the current Drought and Water Restrictions Policy
Council works on the basis that: each level of restriction is designed to achieve a specific water use target (the text became part of a bullet point list).

OLD: Example from the old website on microchipping
The NSW State Government requires microchipping and lifetime registration for all dogs and cats as part of the Companion Animals Act (external link). A microchip is about the size of a grain of rice. It consists of a tiny computer chip housed in a type of glass made to be compatible with living tissue.

NEW: Example from the current website on microchipping
If you’re the owner of a new cat or dog you must make sure your pet is microchipped. By law all dogs and cats must be microchipped by the age of 12 weeks (or when sold or given away, whichever comes first). Penalties apply if you fail to microchip your pet by 12 weeks of age.

OLD: Example from the old website on camping and caravan parks
Camping in parks and reserves is NOT permitted in the Tweed Shire. Campers who choose to disregard any related signage could be fined by Council’s Compliance Officers.

NEW: Example from the current website on camping and caravan parks
The Tweed is a great place to go camping. There’s a range of options, from waterfront cabins and luxury glamping to powered and unpowered RV and tent sites.

If you’d like to learn more about Tweed Shire Council’s plain English certification, read my assessment reports of both documents:

  1. Tweed Shire Council Plain Language Assessment – Website (July 2021)
  2. Tweed Shire Council Plain Language Assessment – Drought and Water Restrictions Policy (December 2021)

PlainLanguagePro is an Australian-based independent system for certifying organisational commitment to plain English. For more information, visit the PlainLanguagePro website or read my comments about why I signed up to certify documents using its approach.