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Government Communications: Formality or Plain Language?

A recent study found that formality in government communications increases engagement, but does this idea contradict the best practice of using plain language to make government more accessible?

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A recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University — called The Formality Effect — is providing a new perspective on effective government communications. The main finding is that more formal language increases engagement.

And as government agencies look to make digital government more inclusive, the use of plain language and simplified websites have been consistently underlined as a best practice. This study offers a new angle on government communications, but it doesn’t contradict what experts say about plain language.

Importantly, the findings state that “formality is conceptually distinct from complexity,” according to study author Elizabeth Linos. Linos is an associate professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty director of The People Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Complexity, Linos explained, is often defined in terms of reading level, with a higher reading level meaning more complex language. Formality, on the other hand, is defined in this study along two axes: aesthetics and language.

“We don’t want this paper on the formality effect to be misunderstood as a vote in favor of more complexity,” Linos said.

She believes plain language and a formal aesthetic can coexist in tone and presentation, because plain language is about clarity and simplicity and a low reading level, which can be presented with a formal aesthetic meaning no emoticons or unnecessary punctuation.

The federal government outlines plain language guidelines on These include writing for the target audience, organizing the information, choosing words carefully, being concise, keeping it conversational, designing for reading, following web standards and testing assumptions.

Katherine Spivey, the General Services Administration (GSA)’s plain language launcher and co-chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), explained that the value of plain language in government communications is that it removes barriers in understanding. She echoed Linos’ belief that formal language and plain language can, in fact, coexist.

Government agencies should adopt their own testing methods for communications to better understand what works best for their constituents to encourage people to take action, Linos suggested.

Plain language and formal communications can effectively work together. “Removing bureaucratic language or complex language doesn’t necessarily have to go hand in hand with being informal,” Linos said.

People use government websites or receive government communications out of necessity, and the use of plain language safeguards an individual’s ability to find the information they need. This is especially important when a specific action is required.

Spivey suggested government agencies utilize plain language guidelines — including the use of active voice, bullet points as appropriate and removal of unnecessary information — and accessibility standards as outlined in Section 508.

Linos believes that the formality effect in government communications is impacted at least in part for reasons related to source credibility. And while this study has provided evidence that at least in some contexts, it works in both the state and local government levels, she noted that more research would be needed to understand whether it would apply to federal government agency communications as well, but similar results can be expected.

Linos noted that these findings are subject to peer review and should be considered preliminary findings.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.