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Bridge the gap with plain language

Nov 4, 2019

Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity, a lesson I learnt from a recent peer-to-peer cooperation between my SAI and the Swedish National Audit Office (SNAO) on plain language. It was my first introduction to understanding how words – so innocent and powerless – can become potent in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

The value of SAIs as defined by INTOSAI-P 12 is making a difference to the lives of citizens. Our biggest tool for doing this is through our reports, which need to be read and understood if SAIs are to make impact on the lives of citizens.

Reading audit reports is not exactly a piece of cake and this is where writing in plain language comes in. Simply put, it is writing that is clear, concise, well-organised, and follows other good practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience. It is writing done with the reader in mind and below are some of the considerations to achieving this:

  • Be clear about the purpose and think about the readers
  • Use a structure to make the text easy for the readers to navigate
  • Draw attention to what is the most important
  • Build as simple sentences as possible
  • Use words that are clear to the reader

Regardless of the specific audience level of expertise in audit, the effectiveness of our communication depends on whether or not our audience understands the benefits of what we are communicating to them. It can be difficult to communicate complex or industry-specific content to a non-expert audience but it’s always important to remember that:

  • Clear messages in audit reports means better understanding and impact. It is even incorporated in our standards through the INTOSAI Principles 1, 12, 20
  • It makes us more efficient internally by having good quality draft reports from the start, less time on control/review, feedback and changes
  • It is a democratic right – citizens have the right to understand what authorities are writing. This importance is underscored by the introduction of plain language legislation and policies, for instance in Australia, Canada, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, the European Union, the United States among others.

So what is my advice to getting you closer to a reader friendly audit report?  After you have completed a draft of your report, one way is to ask a colleague who is not familiar with the subject to read and review it. It is also important to ask Communications experts within your SAI to give their input. These are some interventions that SAIs can use to achieve reader-friendly audit reports, to comply with INTOSAI-P 12.

Lillian Mwikali

Supervisor, Performance Audit, Office of the Auditor-General, Kenya