AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat with Rachel Boyack, New Zealand politician and Member of Parliament in the House of Representatives for the Labour Party

January 31, 2023 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Rachel Boyack
AXSChat with Rachel Boyack, New Zealand politician and Member of Parliament in the House of Representatives for the Labour Party
AXSChat Podcast
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AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat with Rachel Boyack, New Zealand politician and Member of Parliament in the House of Representatives for the Labour Party
Jan 31, 2023
Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Rachel Boyack

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Rachel lives in Nelson with her husband Scott, and before entering Parliament, worked as a Health and Safety Coordinator for the Anglican Diocese of Nelson. In her previous role as an Organiser with FIRST Union, she negotiated collective employment agreements with large companies like Nelson Pine, lifting wages for hundreds of workers in the Nelson region.

Rachel previously volunteered on the Boards of Nelson Women’s and Children’s Refuge and the Nelson Environment Centre. She was the Chair of Labour’s Policy Council leading up to the election. A trained singer, she has a Music Degree from the University of Auckland and was a member of the New Zealand Youth Choir. She also enjoys spending time at Tahunanui beach with Scott and their Labrador, Phoebe.

Rachel is passionate about ensuring all Kiwis have the opportunity to be the best they can be. She knows it starts with dignity at work; affordable, warm homes; quality education and a responsive, accessible health system. She knows working people need the security of knowing there will be a pension there for them at an age they can still enjoy it.

Rachel loves Nelson’s fantastic natural environment, outstanding creative industries and unrivalled community spirit. Rachel is honoured to have been elected as the MP for Nelson and looks forward to working hard in Parliament in 2020.

Rachel’s priorities for Nelson are:

Affordable housing for first-home buyers and families,
Working to end “Sunshine Wages” in the region,
Improving Mental Health services,
Better public transport,
Preserving our environment; and
Working closely with our two Councils to address Climate Change.

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Show Notes Transcript

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Rachel lives in Nelson with her husband Scott, and before entering Parliament, worked as a Health and Safety Coordinator for the Anglican Diocese of Nelson. In her previous role as an Organiser with FIRST Union, she negotiated collective employment agreements with large companies like Nelson Pine, lifting wages for hundreds of workers in the Nelson region.

Rachel previously volunteered on the Boards of Nelson Women’s and Children’s Refuge and the Nelson Environment Centre. She was the Chair of Labour’s Policy Council leading up to the election. A trained singer, she has a Music Degree from the University of Auckland and was a member of the New Zealand Youth Choir. She also enjoys spending time at Tahunanui beach with Scott and their Labrador, Phoebe.

Rachel is passionate about ensuring all Kiwis have the opportunity to be the best they can be. She knows it starts with dignity at work; affordable, warm homes; quality education and a responsive, accessible health system. She knows working people need the security of knowing there will be a pension there for them at an age they can still enjoy it.

Rachel loves Nelson’s fantastic natural environment, outstanding creative industries and unrivalled community spirit. Rachel is honoured to have been elected as the MP for Nelson and looks forward to working hard in Parliament in 2020.

Rachel’s priorities for Nelson are:

Affordable housing for first-home buyers and families,
Working to end “Sunshine Wages” in the region,
Improving Mental Health services,
Better public transport,
Preserving our environment; and
Working closely with our two Councils to address Climate Change.

Support the Show.

Follow axschat on social media
Twitter:

https://twitter.com/axschat
https://twitter.com/AkwyZ
https://twitter.com/neilmilliken
https://twitter.com/debraruh

LinkedIn
https://www.linkedin.com/in/antoniovieirasantos/
https://www.linkedin.com/company/axschat/

Vimeo
https://vimeo.com/akwyz




NEIL MILLIKEN:

Hello and welcome to AXSChat. It is getting towards the end of the year, 2022, it has been a momentous year. I'm delighted that we're joined today by Rachel Boyack, MP for Nelson in New Zealand, South Island. I invited Rachel because I saw, I think it was in The Guardian newspaper, that this momentous piece of legislation had passed. It's called the Plain Language Act, and I thought that this was really super interesting. As someone that is dyslexia that really benefits from having stuff that is unambiguous and as a former member of their Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce, so the W3C plain language is something that really means an awful lot for cognitive accessibility, but it also means a lot for democracy and civil participation. So welcome Rachel, delighted to have you with us.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Thanks for having me on, and lovely to meet you both, Neil and Antonio. It is a real pleasure to be with you.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Can you tell us, so you are a Labour MP, but can you tell us a bit about your background in, and how you came to, wanting to put forward because this is your first piece of legislation as well, right?

RACHEL BOYACK:

Yes, so I've been a Member of Parliament in New Zealand for 2 years and we have a process, we have a system, we have a process called Members' Bills, so any Member of Parliament who isn't a member of the Executive, isn't a Minister, can propose a Minister's Bill and there always has to be a certain number making their way through the Parliamentary system, so we have a ballot. So we literally have a biscuit tin, it is actually biscuit tin from one of our department stores, bought in the '80s, where you have a draw and my Bill got drawn, so it is very much the luck of the draw. And what happened with this one, so the actual idea for the Bill I can't take credit for actually. It was my colleague, Chris Hipkins, who is now Minister for the Public Service, drafted his Member's Bill, so around 10 years ago, and he based it off some legislation in the United States. So that is where the idea came from, and obviously he can't have a Bill in the ballot because he's a Minister, so I was asked to take it on and the reason I was keen, first of all it relates to the Select Committee that I'm the Deputy Chair of, which has Public Service within its remit, and I also studied plain language a lot when I was a junior public servant. So I had a communications role in Wellington, which is our capital city, oh, about 15 years ago and I was sent on a lot of writing courses with an organisation called the Write Group and it was about learning how to write plainly, write for websites, edit documents so that they could be understood so I have actually had a lot of training I this area. So I thought the Bill was a fantastic idea and when I was asked to champion it, I jumped at the chance.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Great, I think that we've got examples of plain language. We have Easy Read in the UK which is a standard for documents which a lot of our important public government documents have published in Easy Read versions, and the great example of why we want to do this is that HMRC, which is our tax body, published guidance on how to complete your tax return in 2 different versions and one version got downloaded about 10 times more than the other and that was the easy to read version and that just tells you that if you really want people to sort of participate in democracy and society and to engage and to understand, then removing the ambiguity is really important. We also saw good examples of this being put, this practice being put into place in the UK, again in medicine. Now medical language is really difficult.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Yes.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

And it actually becomes life or death when people are using language that people don't understand. So now you will see leaflets talking less about stool and more about wee and poo and ‑ ‑

RACHEL BOYACK:

Yeah.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

And you know what? That is great because people understand it, you know, a stool sample, I'm thinking, well is that 3 legged, is it wooden, does it have a cushion on top?

RACHEL BOYACK:

That's great, and it's a great example and one of the reasons why I think this law so is important is that it actually in my view is a right for people to be able to understand what government is asking them to do and also what they are entitled to from government. So, you know, I think all organisations should be working towards plain language, but I feel really strongly that the public sector does have that obligation because every citizen has the right to be able to communicate and interact with their Government. And I guess one of the areas where I see it a lot as a Member of Parliament is with people who have English as a second language or a third or fourth language, migrants to New Zealand. And I've had a life and death situation as well where some people I was trying to assist to get out of a war zone were receiving instructions from our Foreign Affairs Department on where to go and when to go and what do and what not to do, and they were really difficult to understand for me, and these were people with English as a second language, so it was even more difficult for them to understand and actually it really was life and death. And so one of the things I've specifically put into the Bill is that every agency, every public service department will have what we call a plain language officer and they will be a person, if you see a communication that is not written well and not written in plain language you can actually contact them and say,"I have a concern about this website","I have a concern about this form" or this document, or this letter you have sent, and so you can actually raise that directly with the agency so they can improve the communications that they already have that they are using.

ANTONIO:

Rachel, let's imagine that once this piece of legislation is approved, what scope you expect it to cover?

RACHEL BOYACK:

So we've said it will only cover public facing documents, so, and new documents, so what we don't ‑‑ we have to be quite careful. We didn't want to say to the public service that they have to go on an exercise of rewriting every single document that they have, because that would take decades to do. But what we've said is that all new documents that are written from now or are rewritten substantially, rather than just a little change in one sentence, have to be written in plain language and what we've said, we've put some guidance around what a public facing document is, so obviously websites, pamphlets, leaflets and forms, but one of the specifics that we included was something quite important for me which is what we would call template letters so a lot of our public service departments will send a letter to someone that is based off a template so we wanted to include those template letters. I think talking about accessibility, what people sometimes misunderstand about plain language is that it is just the words you are using, but it is not just the words you are using, it is the design of the communication, it is how many sentences you have in a paragraph, it is the size of the font you use. It is all of those things as well, really helps make a document more able to be understood and in my electorate, the area that I represent, I've got a wonderful organisation called Blind Low Vision and they work with people who are vision impaired, and some of the members have received letters from our social welfare organisation that don't have a reader attached to them where it can be, you know, you press a button and the document is read out to you over the website or over your email, and so that wasn't in place and they would ring the free phone number to have someone read it out to them and were told they couldn't do that, they had to go and find a friend to read the document out to them. That sort of thing actually just creates a lot of unnecessary time wasted for so many people, but it also shuts those people out from being able to understand, you know, what benefits they are entitled to. So we've specifically written into the law that the guidance that is written about plain language must include accessibility guidance because from my point of view we have a growing number of people in our country who have a disability, have English as a second language, we have obviously an ageing population and we've just had a petition from our Citizens' Advice Bureau around digital exclusion because obviously the internet can really open doors for people, but it can also make life really hard for people. So I think we have a growing need to ensure that way we're communicating is done in a way that, you know, all members of society are able to participate in that communication properly.

ANTONIO:

Do you expect this somehow also impacts in terms of other services, you know, helping us deliver products to consumers, delivering customer service? Do you expect this also to have a positive impact in business?

RACHEL BOYACK:

I hope so. The Bill itself doesn't cover the private sector or the community sector, but having the Bill actually go through Parliament, I've been really surprised about the amount of media interest in the Bill and I think being able to even just talk about it and promote plain language has been really positive. So the Bill will take effect in a couple of months' time and once over a couple of years we start to see the benefits in public service and we keep talking about that, I would really hope that it will have a benefit into wider society too. But we have some private sector organisations that do a wonderful job with their communications. We have some annual awards which give out prizes for the best plain language documents, and the worst, and there are a lot of, there are a lot of, we call it the Brain Strain Award, so this year it was won by our social welfare department actually, and I think our immigration department might have come a close second. But those awards are well attended by a lot of organisations and people submit their documents. And I sit on the board of a local research institute, it's New Zealand's largest independent research institute that's based in Nelson, Quorthron(?), and we do a lot of research in primary industries and aquiculture in particular. They have won a plain language award and that is a very complex science organisation but they have made a real effort to turn science language into language that can be understood for education and community purposes. So yeah, it is really good to see a lot of organisations really committing to plain language because they can see the benefit for their organisation. An interesting piece of research came out from an organisation that implemented plain language within their whole organisation. They found increases in productivity, a lower number of people needing to ring their Helpdesk for help and advice and increased profit as a result. So putting the time and energy at the beginning to get your documents and your language and your communication right actually made thee organisation more efficient. So that is what I say to people who say,"oh, this is just going to add cost and bureaucracy to the public service." Yes, there is investment, but in my view it leads to improved service delivery and improved lives for people.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

So, so one of these things I think people make a false assumption about is that the cost of doing the work on accessibility, which is a quality process basically, is actually a cost because it is not, because it is a return on investment. So whether or not government gets a direct return from the citizens, well they may well do because if the guidance on taxation is correct, forms might be submitted on time, but they are also, it is also sort of stopping costs elsewhere.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Yes.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Because when you don't do something that is good quality, understandable, and you don't remove the ambiguity you are causing people to fail, or causing people, as you said, to phone up the Helpline, which costs money, that costs government money. You are tying up people in, far more people in a helpline, taking calls, paying for phone lines, heating a building full of people ‑‑ maybe not now because everyone is working from home after Covid, but those costs are there too. There is a ‑‑ I'm going to use some terribly, terrible business language now ‑‑ cost of non‑ quality, but it is, it is something that we're always in our sort of daily lives trying to reduce and trying to find ways of getting rid of and building out of the systems and I think that when people understand that a quality process is actually a process that is efficient and saves money in the long term then they can maybe get behind it more.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Yeah.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Are there tools that you recommend, because I know there are a few out there that help people understand what the sort of reading age score is? Are there tips and tricks you would give to people that want to spot out ‑‑

RACHEL BOYACK:

Well, what I would be recommending in New Zealand is that the Write Group are an organisation that do a lot of training in New Zealand. They have quality standards and provide a really good guidance on how to write in plain language, and it is probably quite a good time just, it's a slight diversion from your question, but just to bring in what we've written into the law and why we did it, about what the guidelines will be based on because one of the things about plain language is it can be subjective, different people can have a different idea of what it looks like, what it means, and people can sometimes spend a lot of time struggling over what do we mean by plain language? And so there is actually an international standard being developed, so the acronym is an ISO, so they are very common in human resources and accounting and engineering and medicine and there is lots of businesses around the world, and public service organisations will sign up to ISOs. So there is a plain language ISO being developed right now. And we have New Zealand experts participating in that development and what we've written into the Bill, into the Act now, is that the guidelines there are are issued to public service departments must take into account international best practice so we've written that in specifically to acknowledge that there will be that international standard being released I hope in the next year or 2, so that is quite close, yes, and then that will help organisations also be working towards a global standard. So I'm really excited about that and we specifically wrote the law so that as soon as that standard is released that will, that will form the majority of the guidance for our public service.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Great, and ‑ ‑

RACHEL BOYACK:

That is a long winded way of asking your question but I think ‑‑ NEIL MILLIKEN: No, that's fine. You know, in terms of reading age, one of the things we know is that, and this won't be unique to New Zealand. One of things we know is a lot of adults have poor literacy and certainly in New Zealand a lot of adults with poor literacy hide that. It is often an area of shame for people, and so by having plain language standards, that will help, it won't solve all of those problems but it will certainly help for people who perhaps weren't able to get all of the reading skills that they needed to at school to be able to understand documents better. There's a great example, just going back to the comments around investment, it's is a great example from the Write Group who rewrote a form for one of our public service agencies. It had a 100% fail rate, so everyone single person who filled the form in filled it in wrong.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Wow.

RACHEL BOYACK:

So think about, in economics we call it opportunity cost, you know, the time you spent sending that form back to the person to fill in the piece that was wrong and then they fill it in and then they send it back and people give up and end up not filling it in, you know. So they rewrote that form and it saved the organisation a million dollars. So ‑ ‑ NEIL MILLIKEN: It's amazing. So it does actually have a positive financial benefit for organisations.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Yeah. How many people fill in that form on a ‑‑ just to sort of understand, how many people fill in that particular form? Was it one of your ‑‑ it must have been a fairly popular one.

RACHEL BOYACK:

It must have been. I'm not sure exactly which form it was but it must have been, it must have been used enough for the organisation to say,"We have a problem and we need to fix this." So ‑‑

NEIL MILLIKEN:

But 100% failure rate is pretty impressive too so ‑‑

RACHEL BOYACK:

I know.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

So that's pretty amazing in terms of bad design of forms.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Exactly.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Thinking about reading age and so on and people's reticence to come forwards about their lack of understanding, and also you're a multicultural nation. So with ISO standards and sort of familiar with those, are those also going to be things that are going to be brought into things like teaching in the longer term, because actually, you know, I like to think about stuff far out on the horizon so thinking about things like pedagogy. So I'm really interested in how we teach accessibility, how we teach people to deal with sort of disability and so on. So we're not going to solve a lot of this big societal mega trends quickly so we may as well start thinking long‑ term. Is it something that you think will be taught, actually, or maybe it is being taught, then it gets bashed out of us as we get older, because I see a trend where people deliberately complicate language because they want to sound cleverer.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Ah, now that, there is actually research on this. So I'll talk to our early years, our what we call primary schools, our children in a minute, but just in terms of the whole wanting to sound clever thing, what the research shows is that those of us who have been to university are the worst at this because we have learned how to, in New Zealand we call pad out an essay, so you get a word limit then you throw words in like "notwithstanding" and "furthermore" and "nevertheless", and "thus" all through it, you know, and so we have to reach a certain word limit so we learn how to write in long complex language and then we also want to sound important and so what the research has shown us that new graduates who have finished university and go on to their first job are normally writing to try and impress someone more senior and then the next person that comes in to work for them is wanting to impress them and it becomes a cultural issue within organisations. I feel very lucky because my first public service job after I finished university, I was sent on those courses to learn how to write in plain language and because I had a Chief Executive boss who was both an accountant and an English teacher and he was a pedant, so he was very strict around spelling and grammar but he was also very keen on having good, consistent plain language so that everybody could understand what we were talking about because we were working in human resources which is a classic for having lots of jargon and gobbledygook and people don't understand. So we worked really, really hard to talk about what we were doing in plain language, so I really value that I had that training so early in my career. But it is absolutely something that has to be knocked out of university students when they are finished and go on to the world of work, and look, I think it would be wise to teach plain language at university as part of everyone's basic courses that they are doing and when I talk about plain language that is very inclusive of how we write and communicate for people with disabilities because it is actually inherent, it is part of what plain language encompasses. It includes all of that. In terms of our younger children, we have a lot of young people in New Zealand who have undiagnosed dyslexia, undiagnosed ADHD, and all sorts of challenges that can really cause a lot of challenge for their learning and their learning around reading and writing and actually I was talking to my mother recently about she has a PhD in education and has some speciality in this area. Part of how we teach our students is really important in a way that ensures everyone is able to learn how to read. Our Associate Minister of Education its actually doing some work on how we provide support to young people and make sure they are getting the right support. But I also agree with you, that part of it is how we're teaching teachers and how we're ensuring that people who go out into the world of work are going out with skills that are going to help everyone rather than perhaps just trying to impress the boss with the cleverest language and the longest sentences possible.

ANTONIO:

Rachel, when you were working, was there any kind of working groups providing you support in terms of coming up to conclusions how to do this in the best way possible?

RACHEL BOYACK:

So what we do when a Bill goes through the Parliamentary process is we have what is called a Select Committee process. So that is when a group of MPs will take advice from officials and experts, but also hear submissions from the public and we received a very large number of submissions, more than a lot of Bills receive, and a lot came from lawyers. There were some concerns around how the Bill would actually be implemented in law, so we received lot of submissions from lawyers that were very helpful, and submissions from plain language experts, people who work in the field. We received a lot of submissions from organisations that work with people to help them understand documents, so our community law centres, our Citizens' Advice Bureau, a lot of Disability Rights organisations all submitted and that was really helpful. They were very clear that we needed legislation, not just some guidance issued, and they were very strong around ensuring we referenced accessibility, that plain language guidance will have to include guidance around accessibility so that was a really helpful process and that process takes a few months. So we receive written and oral submissions and we have a lot of meetings ourselves and then I also meet with a lot of the experts over the last few months just to make sure what we were putting in the Bill was going to be the best it could be.

ANTONIO:

Was there a particular group that was more, somehow more active advocating for this to come forward?

RACHEL BOYACK:

I do keep referring to the Write Group and the reason I do is that they are a large organisation based out of Wellington that works a lot with a lot of public service agencies, so they already provide a lot of support to those agencies. I've trained with them myself. They've set up, they actually have like a standard that they've set up, like an internal one themselves and so they will audit an organisation and then issue a standard. So they have already gone some way towards doing some of this work already and they are very involved in the development of the international standards, so they, yeah, they are an organisation I definitely single out because they are excellent at what they do and as soon as the Bill was pulled they were the first organisation I met with and they provided really useful advice.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

Excellent. I am just going back to thinking about, as I was as a student, padding and I had an English teacher that took me down, cut me down to size completely with a single word. I'd written an essay that was full of flowery language and he just wrote on it "prolix", what is it, just one word, and I had to go and look it up because I didn't know the word. It means unduly, unduly wordy, and I just, one word and it just chopped me down and I do think that as I've got older I've actually learned to try and write in a way that is understandable more. It doesn't mean that I'm discussing ideas that are less complex. In fact, I'm simplifying, I'm always now trying to simplify my message when I'm creating sort of documents and presentations, and simplify the language so I can get the complex concepts across. So I think that actually it is quite exciting because by giving people the challenge of simplifying their language maybe we'll actually be able to start discussing stuff that is a little bit more substantive because we've got beyond just trying to work out what the heck's written on the page or on the web page. So I'd really like to thank you for taking the time today. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for putting through this landmark piece of legislation because we need countries to lead on this, and New Zealand has been a bit of a beacon of late. We have been looking. We have been observing and thinking, isn't it nice? All of these good things you are doing, and so thank you very much and we really look forward to continuing the discussion on Twitter.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Thank you.

NEIL MILLIKEN:

And also just thank you to MyClearText for providing us with captions and making sure that people can access this. Thank you Rachel.

RACHEL BOYACK:

Thank you.