1 November 2023
Neil James, Federation Chair
Plain language celebrated a major milestone in June 2023, with publication of our first international standard: ISO 24495-1. But some emerging initiatives suggest we are about to embark on the next major stage of our journey.
ISO standard 24495-1 establishes the governing principles and guidelines for developing plain language documents. It was developed by the plain language working group (WG 11) of ISO’s Technical Committee 37, which deals with language and terminology standards. The Federation’s three members (PLAIN, Clarity and the Center for Plain Language) are all liaison organizations of this working group.
The ‘1’ in 24495-1 means this is only the first part of what will build into a larger standard. TC 37 held its annual forum in Brussels in June, during which WG 11 members considered potential new parts to expand on the governing principles and guidelines. Already, further parts on legal communication and on science writing are underway, and the group is considering parts for health and finance. Similarly, there may be parts detailing guidelines for design and evaluation, and a part on terminology.
The Brussels meeting also discussed a strategy to prioritize what to develop and how to integrate the parts effectively. We will also consider what ought to be within the standard and what may be better as a supporting document.
To make the most of ISO 24495-1, the Federation’s Localization and Implementation Committee has been actively promoting the standard through communication tools such as these:
- FAQs about the standard, how to use it, and where to get it
- a media release in 32 languages
- a guide and checklist on adapting the standard
- the benefits for various areas of expertise
- social media tiles, banners, posts and countdown communications.
The committee’s extensive preparations have paid off, with some excellent results by August:
- 411 communications sent to government and private organizations
- over 2,300 views of the English press release
- over 5,700 visits to the ISO standard page on the IPLF website
- 630 views of the IPLF’s standard FAQ pages
- over 3,000 uses of the Federation’s link to the ISO standard
ISO’s TC 37 invited Localization Committee Chair Gael Spivak to present on the Federation’s communications strategy at its annual forum in Brussels. The feedback was very positive, with one delegate commenting that we provided ‘a model for how to approach communications about a standard’. Another delegate suggested ‘they should promote all standards like that’.
With an ISO standard now available, one of the first questions many ask is how they can be certified against it. The short answer is that you can’t – at least not yet.
ISO 24495-1 is what is called a ‘guidance’ standard, which is not prescriptive enough for certification. For that, there would need to be a ‘requirements’ standard administered by recognized certification and accreditation bodies.
The Federation’s Certification Committee has been exploring what kind of system we might set up for plain language, and it is drafting an Issues Paper to assess the:
- costs and benefits
- priority areas for certification – such as of organizations, individuals, training, or documents
- standards to certify against and the relationship with ISO
- organizational structure required
- costs and timeline.
We have also been testing the likely demand for certification through surveys and focus groups. For example, a survey this year of more than 100 organizations found there is keen interest in certification, but further work is needed on the criteria, standards, costs and duration. A second survey is assessing certification for individual practitioners, while some focus groups will explore the feasibility of certification for plain language training.
The surveys and the Issues Paper will be completed in 2023, after which the Federation will consult with its members about the next steps.
Training guidelines and resources
The Training Guidelines Committee completed its own survey in 2023, which included:
- 120 plain language trainers
- 167 recipients of plain language training
The results were very useful. People who hire plain language trainers reported that they lack a consistent, reliable way to find qualified candidates. And most participants supported the need for training guidelines to assess the skills of trainers or to provide a baseline for the training itself.
The survey also found that learners want certification, tools and practical examples. Gaps in current practice included how to implement plain language as a strategic priority and get buy-in from managers.
Based on survey results, the committee will next:
- draft guidelines for plain language training
- identify platforms for sharing them
- develop a business model for making them available.
This means its work now intersects with that of the Training Resources Bank Committee that has been doing extensive work on a suitable platform for plain language resources.
As a result, the Federation decided to merge these two committees to build a platform and business model that will support a growing range of resources for its members. This will be an exciting development to watch for in 2024.
Bibliography and definition
A more immediately available resource is the bibliography for the ISO standard, now published on the IPLF website. This supports ISO 24495-1 by listing resources that:
- provide empirical evidence for the standard’s guidelines
- illustrate how to apply a principle or a guideline.
The bibliography will be a living document, with new references added continuously.
Of course, the first resource that the Federation developed a decade ago was the definition of plain language, which is now available in 28 languages. The drafting of the ISO standard raised some suggestions about the definition, which the Federation will look at later in 2023.
The agenda we have been working to was set out in an Options Paper developed more than a decade ago. With much of this in place or under way, it is timely to consider the work program for the decade ahead.
The Federation Board in June reviewed an audit of the original Options Paper recommendations, along with a list of current and potential goals. It decided to develop these as a ‘Future Directions’ document for consultation with its member organizations. Just as we did for the Options Paper, this will provide a great opportunity for members to have their say about the future agenda.
Any review of future directions should include the role of the Federation itself. Like the Options Paper, our current organizational model was developed a dozen years ago, and it is worth assessing whether it is still fit for purpose.
The Federation has initiated a governance review that will examine its:
- strategy and operating model
- board and committee structure
- legal status and by-laws
- communications, administration and finances.
The review will report to the Board by the end of 2023, after which it will consult with the boards and members of its constituent organizations about the way forward.
If you would like to know more, please visit www.iplfederation.org or contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Federation is also presenting two panel sessions at the PLAIN 2023 conference in Buenos Aires:
- Setting the Standard (on the ISO standard, localization and the definition)
- Future Directions (on certification, training and resources, and future strategy)
You can get involved by joining one of the Federation’s member organisations:
- PLAIN: www.plainlanguagenetwork.org
- Clarity: www.clarity-international.org
- Center for Plain Language: www.centerforplainlanguage.org