Governments in Australia and New Zealand fail to meet plain English website guidelines

Evelyn Wolf
4 min read
A person typing on a MacBook laptop using Google Docs.
VisibleThread identifies that 4 out of 5 of Australian Government websites analyzed do not meet recommended readability standards. New Zealand fares better but still has a way to go to achieve its readability goals.

Cambridge UK, Monday 13th June 2016. VisibleThread, a global leader in content quality management, has released the latest in its series of Government website readability reports. They conducted this analysis on 28 Australian Government Agency Websites and 4 New Zealand Government agency websites.

The Governments of Australia and New Zealand have taken a positive stance on how they should communicate online. Both governments aim to communicate in a clear, concise and well-organized way that benefits all citizens.

In 2015, the Australian Government delivered on this commitment by creating the DTO (Digital Transformation Office) as a part of the Prime Minister’s portfolio. The DTO published the Digital Service Standard, a design guide with specific guidance for clear online writing.

“Sometimes in government people write in convoluted ways using language which hides or confuses the real message they want to convey,” said The Hon Jay Weatherill MP and Minister Assisting the Premier in Cabinet. “Plain English saves time and effort – for citizens, the private and community sectors and other parts of government”

The New Zealand Government similarly states in its style guide that “our goal is to make things as simple and clear as possible for our users — to make what government does easier to understand.”

In their sample of Government websites, VisibleThread analyzed up to 100 pages on each site for these 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?

They sampled these sites between May 9th and May 15th 2016.

The key findings are:


  • 79% of Australian Government agency websites sampled failed to achieve the target readability score
  • Only 6 out of 28 Australian Government Agencies achieved acceptable readability score.
  • No Australian Government website analyzed met the target passive language score of 4%
  • Despite Social Media communications encouraging brevity, long sentences abound on Government websites. On some websites over 30% of the sentences contained more than 20 words. None of the websites analyzed met the target score of 5%.
  • The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. Only two out of the 28 Government websites achieved an acceptable score.

New Zealand

  • 50% of New Zealand Government agency websites failed to achieve the target readability score
  • Two out of the four New Zealand Government Agencies achieved acceptable readability score.
  • No New Zealand Government websites analyzed met the target passive language score of 4%
  • On one website over 25% of the sentences contained more than 20 words. None of the websites analyzed met the target score of 5%.
  • The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. Only one New Zealand Government websites came close to an acceptable score.

High Fliers and Bottom Dwellers – Australia
Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads topped the 2016 Australia Government Agency rankings. It scored very highly in Readability and ranked in the top 10 for all categories. However, the Department can improve its overall clear writing score by reducing sentence length and using active voice.

The South Australia Health Authority also performed well. Readability was slightly under the target score. However, it boosted its overall clarity by achieving target scores for using active voice and short sentences.

Unfortunately, the Australian Electoral Commission website fell well below VisibleThread’s recommended scores in all categories. Incredibly, 33% of all sentences encountered contained more than 25 words. It also had a relatively high score in terms of complex sentence use. These two factors combined affected its overall clear writing score.

Similarly, the Australian Federal Police fared poorly in its use of long sentences. Phraseology was less complex and its use of active voice ensured that it did not hit rock bottom.

Heroes and Villains – New Zealand
Since they analyzed only four New Zealand Government Agency it is not possible to see any trends in the writing quality on New Zealand Government websites. However, it is encouraging to see that two of the four agencies analyzed feature in the top 10. The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment just missed out on a top 10 place coming in a passable 11th place.

Inland Revenue New Zealand had the highest readability score of the entire list, indicating well-constructed content. If they concentrate on shortening sentences, they will further improve.

New Zealand Post trailed the group in 22nd place with long and complex sentences negatively affecting its overall placing.

The cost benefits achieved by improving clarity on websites and allowing citizens to complete error-free tasks online are significant. Website users can self-serve and avoid costlier means of communication, calling by telephone or face-to-face interactions. The fact that such a small percentage of Government Websites have reached an acceptable score is disappointing. However, Visible Thread’s analysis shows that in many cases, agencies can deliver clearer content, if they improve just one of the four key measures.

You can download the full report here:

About VisibleThread

VisibleThread helps executives in large organizations 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


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