Local authorities need to improve website readability, study says

The majority of local authorities assessed by a content management company are failing to write online content that would be easily understood by 13- to 15-year-olds. 

The government wants to ensure public sector websites don’t have people reaching for the dictionaries – Photo credit: Pixabay

According to the study, which was carried out by Visible Thread – a company that aims to help organisations produce more understandable online content – just 82% of the 191 councils assessed failed to achieve a readability score of 60.

This is equivalent to a UK year 9 reading level and is classed as “plain English”, which is what the government specifies all online content should be written in in its Writing for GOV.UK style guide.

“Plain English is mandatory for all of GOV.UK,” the guide states. “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.”

According to the Visible Thread report, Fylde Borough Council came first with a readability score of 95 out of 100 – this indicates it can be understood by someone with just primary-level education. Meanwhile Chiltern District Council came bottom, with a score of 46 – this is classed as readable by someone with a college education.

The survey also looked at other aspects of online content, comparing the councils’ content with the guidelines set out in Writing for GOV.UK.

This includes the use of long sentences – the government recommends splitting up sentences longer than 25 words – the complexity of the language and whether it was active or passive.

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Combining these measures, Visible Thread then ranked the local authorities, putting South Tyneside Council at the top, with the council ranking in the top 10 for three of the four categories. The other top five councils overall were Eastbourne, Hackney, Durham and Huntingdonshire.

Meanwhile, Malvern Hills District Council was the bottom of the 191 local authorities, with Visible Thread saying it fell below targets in all categories.

“Amazingly, 31% of all sentences encountered contained more than 25 words. It was also in the bottom three for the use of passive voice and sentence complexity,” a statement accompanying the report said.

Other poor performers were the Council of the Isles of Scilly and Chiltern, Worcester and Sevenoaks councils.

“Our analysis clearly shows that UK local authorities still have a lot of work to do,” Fergal McGovern, chief executive of Visible Thread said.

Visible Thread noted that improving website clarity would help citizens use online services, cutting costs for the council by reducing the number of telephone calls or face-to-face visits to clarify information.

“The fact that such a small percentage of local authority websites have successfully adopted the Writing for GOV.UK guidelines is disappointing,” the company said. However, it added that, in many cases, councils only need to focus on one or two areas in order to “deliver a massive improvement in overall readability”.

For instance, Preston council, which came 62nd overall, ranked 24th on readability and 20th on length of sentences, but 124th in the use of complex sentences.

Category breakdown

The study found that long sentences were common, saying that on some websites more than 30% of the sentences were longer than 25 words. Just two council websites met the target score of 5%.

Meanwhile, it found that just seven councils (3.6%) met a passive language target of less than 4%. The government asks for content to be written in an active voice – for instance, “the hunter killed the lion” rather than “the lion was killed by the hunter”.

Of the councils assessed by Visible Thread, Erewash Borough Council was the only one where all of its online content was written in the active voice.

Malvern Hills Council and Northamptonshire County Council came joint last, with 20% of the content analysed using the passive voice.

Visible Thread said that the complexity of sentences varied greatly across the websites it looked at, but that 25 of the 191 councils (13%) met or exceed the target score.

The aim should be to use clear and simple words, to ensure people can understand the information, with the government’s writing guide saying: “There’s no excuse for putting unnecessarily complicated writing in the way of people’s understanding”.

Of the councils assessed, Durham County Council, Hartlepool Borough Council and Magherafelt District Council came joint first in the complex language category, with Craven District Council at the bottom end.


This article has been amended to add the words ‘failed to’ in the second paragraph, which were deleted in error during the editing process.


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