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UK Government websites fail to meet plain English guidelines


VisibleThread identifies that 92% of Central Government and 66% of Local Governments sites analysed do not meet recommended readability standards

Cambridge UK, Wednesday 27th April 2016. VisibleThread, a global leader in content quality management, has released its latest readability reports. This analysis was undertaken on 26 Central Government agency websites and 12 Local Government websites.

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VisibleThread logo

In 2014, the UK Government’s Digital Service, part of the Cabinet Group’s Efficiency and Reform Service issued its content design: planning, writing and managing content guidelines. These guidelines mandate UK Government Departments to communicate online in a clear, concise and well-organized way. In its Writing for GOV.UK guide, there are specific guidelines to help writers. It goes further than mere recommendations stating:

“Plain English is mandatory for all of GOV.UK. One of the parts most people pick up on is the plain English (or words to avoid) list. This isn’t just a list of words to avoid. Plain English is the whole ethos of GOV.UK: it’s a way of writing.”

VisibleThread analysed up to 300 pages on each website for the following key metrics:

  • Readability – How readable is the content?
  • Passive Language – Active Language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences is passive?
  • Long Sentences – What proportion of all sentences are too long?
  • Word Complexity Density – How many complex, hard-to-understand words does the content contain?

The key findings are as follows:

  • 92% of UK Government agency websites failed to achieve the target readability score
  • Only 2 out of 26 Central Government Agencies achieved acceptable readability score. This compares with 4 out of 12 Local Government websites analysed.
  • No Central Government websites or the Local Government websites analysed met the target passive language score of 4%
  • Despite Twitter encouraging brevity, long sentences abound on Government websites. On some websites 30% of the sentences contained more than 20 words. None of the websites analysed met the target score of 5%.
  • The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. Seven out of the 28 Central Government websites achieved an acceptable score. This was matched by four out of the 12 Local Government websites hitting the target score.

Heroes and Villains
In the Central Government agency report, National Savings and Investments came top of the 2016 rankings. It scored very highly in the readability index compared to its peers, but also distinguished itself in a handful of other key areas to secure its place at the top. At the bottom end of the scale, The British Business Bank languished in the bottom third of the league table in three out of the four possible categories indicating the need for a considerable improvement.

Top 3 Central Government Agencies

Bottom 3 Central Government Agencies

National Savings & Investments
National Archives
British Library

Advisory Council on National Records & Archives
Food Standards Agency
British Business Bank

Hampshire County Council topped the 2016 UK Local Authority rankings. It scored very highly in three out of the four assessment categories; only falling just outside the top three in the readability index. At the other end of the table, Hertfordshire County Council was at the bottom in three out of the four possible categories indicating an urgent need for action and improvement.

Top 3 Local Authorities

Bottom 3 Local Authorities

Hampshire County Council
Manchester City Council
Bristol City Council

Sheffield City Council
Birmingham City Council
Hertfordshire County Council

“Two years ago, UK Government recognised the need to communicate clearly and took the significant step of publishing its comprehensive ‘Writing for guide’. Our analysis demonstrates that there has been no uniform adoption of these crucial guidelines,” said Fergal McGovern, CEO of Visible Thread. “With few exceptions, poor communications on Government websites continue to confuse readers and lead to increased customer support costs.”

The cost benefits achieved by improving clarity on websites and allowing citizens to complete error-free operations online are significant. Website users avoid the need to revert to other means of communication, such as telephone or face-to-face interactions, to clarify information. The fact that such a small percentage of Government Websites have successfully adopted the Writing for guidelines is disappointing. However, Visible Thread’s analysis shows that, in many cases, efforts are required in only one of the four key measures to deliver a significant improvement in overall readability.

The full reports can be found here

Giovanni Maieli

About VisibleThread
VisibleThread helps executives in large organisations govern content quality with less cost and risk. Communications, marketing and sales teams in diverse industries use our technology to improve many functions, including proposal development, contract review, and brand audits. Our software finds brand compliance, poor readability, and other issues in websites and documents. Unlike consumer-grade analysis tools, VisibleThread processes hundreds of documents and web pages in minutes. Fueled with greater insights, customers reduce costs and automate manual processes across their organizations. For more information, visit