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.


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.”



Branding and Stakeholder Engagement – the Missing Links in Government Strategic Communications and Marketing

This blog was written by:

Jim Mintz, CEPSM and Kathleen Connelly, Intersol Group Ltd.


The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw 


The major challenge facing public sector organizations today is that they have great difficulty getting their message out. More important, many can’t seem to get their messages to resonate with their diverse target audiences, including internal and external audiences, stakeholders etc. Most communication and marketing approaches generate some awareness but not much else.  Public sector organizations today are looking for approaches that generate something more substantial like motivating people to get engaged and take action.

This is a common problem with most organizations we work with at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing and Intersol Group Ltd. Many organizations are very focused on tactics, but very few have strategic communications plans to guide all of their activities. They tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Even in cases where they do have a strategic communications plan there tend to be some critical missing links.

The success of any communications effort is dependent on a strong underlying strategy and two main factors: getting the audiences right and telling them a story that matters to them.   Get that right, and everything else falls into place. And this means understanding the internal and external stakeholder landscape and identifying the right opportunities to bring meaning to the messages.

Strategies to increase awareness, support and understanding both internally and externally must include a holistic view of strategic planning, business and operational goals, marketing, communications, creative strategy combined with the granular details required for implementation in areas such as web, social media channels, media relations, inbound content-based communications, outbound marketing, and analytics.

From our experience there are two missing links in many public sector communications plans. Without a branding framework to guide the communications and a full understanding of the stakeholder landscape to encourage true engagement, the best communications or marketing strategy will “fall flat on its face”.

Missing Link #1:  Branding is much more than a visual identity or a tagline for an organization; it’s a core business tool, a strategic platform for both communicating and building value among its audiences.  A brand contains within it the complete value that an organization delivers, a relevant promise that matters to its audiences and is aligned with the organization’s strategic and operational goals.


Branding is a strategic investment. It leads to an improved ability to internalize and communicate organizational vision and mission. A well-conceived brand provides clear and easy to understand principles that guide your communications and marketing efforts. The internalization and integration of a brand leads to the brand promise being lived by everyone who works for the organization, at all points of contact. “Living the brand” means more efficiency, and more return on investment for your communications and marketing dollar. A brand stands for the relationship that an organization has with its employees and partners, as much as it represents the relationship that it has with the people it serves.

Missing Link #2:  Stakeholder Engagement when done well increases the credibility of the organization.  Involving stakeholders and attending to their concerns establishes the organization as fair, ethical, and transparent, and makes it more likely that they will want to work with the organization. For the above reasons, identification of stakeholders and their specific concerns makes it far more likely that the organization’s communications efforts will garner both the support they need and the appropriate focus to be effective.


To be successful, organizations have to rally support for what they are trying to achieve while building and maintaining good relationships with key stakeholders that are integral to future work. The objective is to work with stakeholders in a way that strikes a balance between meeting their expectations while reaching the organization’s communications and marketing goals.

Finally, a number of principles must always underpin and guide stakeholder engagement approaches. They include open and effective communication, a focus on seeking mutually beneficial outcomes, inclusiveness to ensure a variety of voices are heard and engaging in a way that builds mutual trust and respect.


Kathleen Connelly, Senior Consultant at Intersol Group, and Jim Mintz, Managing Partner at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing, have many years of experience working with senior levels of government and bring fresh perspectives on communicating in a public sector environment.  

For more information about our services, please contact:

Jim Mintz | jimmintz@cepsm.ca or Kathleen Connelly | kconnelly@intersol.ca


Marketing Workshops Spring 2017

Marketing 101 (for Marketers and Non-Marketers)

March 29, 2017

343 Preston Street, Ottawa, ON,

This workshop will provide participants with an overview of public sector and non-profit marketing. The workshop will teach participants how to develop a marketing  strategy and plan as well as how to transform a government/nonprofit organizations from using the traditional communications approach to an integrated, strategic marketing approach.

The workshop will focus on:

  • An overview of marketing;
  • Systematic processes and strategic elements for developing and implementing an action-oriented strategic marketing plan;
  • How to set realistic, practical marketing objectives and goals;
  • How to evaluate marketing efforts with practical ideas on how to improve execution;
  • How to develop a client-based mindset in a public sector or non-profit organization;
  • How to use market research to support a decision-making framework;
  • How to develop a system for measuring progress and monitoring performance.



Intro to Social Marketing Planning for Attitude and Behaviour Change

March 9, 2017


343 Preston Street, Ottawa, ON,

Awareness.  Are you getting tired of hearing that word? If you want to move your marketing and communications efforts beyond merely public education and awareness campaigns and into the realm of action-oriented attitude and behaviour change then this workshop is for you


The workshop will focus on:

  • How to use a step-by-step structured approach to prepare a social marketing plan that is actionable, has maximum impact, and leads to successful implementation;
  • How to present and “sell” your social marketing strategy to management;
  • How to implement a social marketing program on a very tight budget;
  • How to monitor and evaluate your inputs/outputs, outcomes and impacts;
  • How social marketing gives you a single approach: for mobilizing communities; influencing the media; activating key stakeholders; and building strategic alliances with business.