Why Can`t Government Communicate Clearly with its Clients?

I just read an article that Revenue Canada’s letters are full of gobbledegook according to an internal report. For example tax notices are so confusing, recipients are often not sure whether they owe money, a study found.

Based on my experience as a former public servant, writing like a bureaucrat takes a lot of practice. As Stephen Wilbers points out, of all the on-the-job writers, the bureaucrat is perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned. Although many people assume that anyone can write like a bureaucrat, truly accomplished bureaucratic writers have devoted many long hours of study and practice to learn their craft.

blackboard_bureaucratese

Back to Canada Revenue Agency, the next time you puzzle over an indecipherable letter or notice from the Canada Revenue Agency, don’t blame yourself: even the tax department acknowledges it churns out a lot of gobbledegook.

A study of the agency last month confirms the millions of communications that bureaucrats send to taxpayers each year are poorly organized, confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe, bureaucratic, one-sided and just plain dense. Now there is a confession worthy of note from the people who collect our taxes.

According to the study done by a New York-based consultant firm (Why  New York consultants to advise the Canadian government how to write clearly) all that gibberish comes with a human cost: confused taxpayers swamp the agency’s call centres with needless telephone inquiries, or they send thousands of letters to tax offices asking for clarification.

Canadians who receive government benefit cheques sometimes get cut off without cause because they don’t understand the unintelligible letters the agency sends to them asking for information.

Keep in mind that we have many Canadians, particularly recent immigrants, whose skills in both official languages are very limited. Add to that, 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. Source:

The findings by these New York consultants appear in an internal evaluation of the 130 million pieces of mail that tax officials issue each year to businesses, charitable groups and individual taxpayers, virtually all of it through Canada Post rather than electronically.

The consultants also noted that CRA’s letters were not well organized, the presentation of information did not inspire confidence and the tone used lacked empathy. ” Often the main purpose of the documents was not readily apparent, and other important information was scattered throughout the document or embedded in dense paragraphs. ” (CRA spent $25,000 for this review).

An online survey of taxpayers by another firm asked respondents to examine a typical CRA notice that required the recipient to send the tax agency money. About half of those surveyed could not figure out if they were supposed to write a cheque to the government because the document was so poorly written. Worse, many of those surveyed claimed they understood the sample document when in fact they did not.

Separate work commissioned by another consultant in 2012-2013 found that taxpayers they interviewed considered the letters and notices to be full of gibberish.

The evaluation blames the problem partly on older letter-generating software at the CRA that offers bureaucrats little flexibility in customizing or improving their communications. The agency said it accepts the findings, and plans to consult businesses this fall to find ways to improve clarity, as part of a “red-tape reduction” initiative. (How about hiring communicators who can write clearly in both official languages?)

Now the CRA plans to engage Canadians to solicit their feedback (using another consultant) on how to improve their correspondence with them.

The Canada Revenue Agency says it plans to boost the clarity of its communications as part of a new initiative starting in February next year. According to the article they plan to introduce a new service in February that will allow individuals to receive correspondence online, and will use the opportunity to improve clarity.

Over the next 18 months, the most common letters and notices that the CRA generates, constituting more than 60 million pieces of correspondence a year, will be available online to Canadians in simplified, easier-to-understand formats. Officials also plan to hire a third-party consultant to help rewrite the templates for standard correspondence. (CRA has one of the largest Communications groups in the federal government so why hire consultants to write correspondence?)

Finally the New York consultant, who did one of the studies, says that CRA needs a “high-level executive champion to overcome a lot of bureaucratic inertia.”

Amen.

About jimmintz

Managing Partner, CEPSM Jim Mintz is a veteran marketing professional with many years of experience as a practioner and academic. He is presently Managing Partner at CEPSM and Program Director of the “Professional Certificate in Public Sector and Non-Profit Marketing” at Sprott School ... Specialty Areas: Social Marketing, Integrated Marketing Communications, Public Sector and Non Profit Marketing
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