Where we’re at, next steps, and the back story

Christopher Balmford, Chair, ISO TC 37 WG 11, Plain Language Project

7 September 2020

Next update Access for all online plain language conference, Wed 14 Oct 2020

Where we’re at

The International Standards Organization ― known to its friends as, ISO ― has a project to develop an international plain language standard that works in as many languages as possible.

In 2019, ISO appointed a Working Group to develop the standard. The Working Group is part of ISO’s Technical Committee 37, which covers Language and terminology. The Committee is known as TC 37, see ISO TC 37 WG 11, we’re right at the bottom of the page.

The Working Group, which I chair, has (at last count) 50 members from standards bodies in 16 countries ― namely: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the USA.

Representatives from other country’s standards bodies (that are ISO members) are welcome to join the Working Group you can read about that here.

The Working Group also has a representative from each of the 3 organisations that formed the International Plain Language Federation. The representatives are:

  • for PLAIN, Bede Sunter, Australia;
  • for Clarity, Justyna Zandberg-Malec, Poland; and
  • for the Center, Kat Catania, the USA.

BTW, in the ISO world, organisations that appoint representatives to a Working Group are officially appointed as Liaison Organizations ― and it is something of a big deal.

This structure of technical committees, working groups, and liaison organizations ― and the processes they each follow ― is all part of ISO’s well-established policies and procedures. Thankfully, the Working Group is ably supported by helpful experts at ISO.

At a Zoom meeting in June 2020, ISO’s plain language Working Group established a Drafting Committee to draft the standard. The Committee’s members are:

From existing members of ISO’s Technical Committee 37:

  • Andreas Baumert, Germany; and
  • Angelika Vaasa, Luxembourg.

From the plain language world:

  • Machiko Asai, Japan;
  • Rosa Margarita Galán Vélez, Mexico;
  • Torunn Reksten, Norway;
  • Vera Gergely, Hungary; and
  • Susan Kleimann and David Lipscomb, the USA. Susan and David are something of a double act, having prepared ― with Annetta Cheek ― early versions of the draft standard. More on those early drafts below.

Update Soon after the Drafting Committee began meeting, it co-opted Annetta as a member.

Between them, the Drafting Committee members speak ― and will be considering the standard from the perspective of: English, Estonian, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, and Spanish.

Members of the broader Working Group will also review the Drafts from the perspective of Afrikaans, Finnish, French, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish.

Also the Working Group’s 3 Liaison Organizations, Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center, will each consult with their members. This will further extend the range of languages involved ― for example, a PLAIN member from South Africa will review the standard from the perspective of Zulu.

Also these reviews by members of Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center will broaden the plain-language expertise applied to developing the standard.

For this sort of consultation with the members of a Working Group’s Liaison Organization, ISO has a formal policy and process ― in particular, a member who is to review a draft must first agree to preserve confidentiality and not to use the draft standard for any other purpose.

Next steps

The next steps are for the Drafting Committee to produce Draft 2 for the Working Group to review. And then Draft 3, . . . and so on.  

When the Working Group settles its final draft ― probably in mid-2021, that draft will go to ISO for a formal ballot as to whether it should be approved. The voters in that ballot are the 32 countries’ standards bodies that are Participating Members of TC 37.  (There are another 29 countries’ standards bodies that are Observing Members of TC 37, but those Observing Members don’t get to vote in the ISO ballot. See here for the countries whose standards bodies are Participating Members, or Observing Members, of TC 37.)

Assuming the ISO ballot approves the Working Group’s final draft, each country’s standards body then decides whether to adopt the standard for its country. When doing so, a country’s standards body can make any changes to the standard that it thinks are needed for its country, or for its language (or languages), etc.

Some key thoughts on the standard:

  • Like all standards, complying with the plain language standard will be voluntary ― no organisation and no individual has to comply with it. They choose to if they want to.
  • The standard is not a style guide and it is not a writing guide.
  • The standard is intended to work in as many languages as possible.
  • The standard builds on, and works with, the definition of plain language that the International Plain Language Federation developed.
  • To find out how you can be involved, read here.

The back story

The Federation initiated the project

The International Plain Language Federation was formed in 2009 by Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center. The Federation has no other members ― just those 3 organisations.

In 2010, the Federation published an options paper suggesting 7 projects ― one of which was to develop a plain language standard. However, for the next 8 years, the project was on hold, while the Federation focussed on other projects.

In 2018, the Federation ― under Annetta Cheek’s leadership ― established a committee to drive the standards project, I was appointed as its chair.

In 2019 the Federation approached Standards Australia (which is an ISO member) about developing a plain language standard.

Standards Australia proposed a plain language standard to ISO

After some to-ing and fro-ing ― and us filling in the relevant forms, and meeting with Standards Australia to make the proposal ― Standards Australia resolved to formally propose to ISO that ISO develop a plain language standard.

The relevant ISO meeting at which the proposal needed to be made was TC 37’s annual meeting in Ottawa, Canada, in June 2019. Standards Australia appointed me to make the proposal on its behalf. In Ottawa, I was supported ― and more ― by the Federation’s President, Annetta Cheek.

As part of any proposal for a new standard, ISO requires a model demonstration of part of the proposed standard ― that draft is known as the Experts’ Draft.

The Ottawa meeting approved the proposal going to a formal ISO ballot involving the standards bodies of about 30 countries over a 3-month period.

ISO approved the proposal ― work began

In September 2019, the ISO ballot approved the proposal to develop a plain language standard ― that’s when the Working Group was established, and the real work began.

The first task for ISO’s plain language Working Group was to complete the Experts’ Draft and to adopt it as Draft 1. The Working Group appointed 3 luminaries and stalwarts of the plain language world to author the Experts’ Draft, they are: Susan Kleimann, David Lipscomb and Annetta Cheek. As they completed the Experts’ Draft, they learned about ISO’s requirements for standards.

Then, moving quickly and making it sound easy:

  • The Working Group formally adopted the complete Experts’ Draft as its first draft.
  • The Working Group commented on that first draft in writing. Have a think about that: 50 people, 17 countries, 13 languages, everyone with a view . . . there were 238 comments. Many were minor: some were curly and complicated.
  • Susan, David, and Annetta responded to those comments in writing and produced Draft 1.1. 
  • In June 2020, the Working Group met by Zoom ― 36 people attended ― to:
  • discuss any of the comments that any Working Group member felt still needed to be discussed; and
  • to appoint the Drafting Committee.

Now the Drafting Committee is working on Draft 2. All power to it.

In late 2020, WG 11 will arrange for Clarity, PLAIN and the Center ― as TC 37 Liaison Organizations ― to invite their members to comment on the draft.

Lastly, deep thanks:

  • to the people at Standards Australia, ISO and TC 37 for being so encouragingly, and supportively, helpful; and
  • to everyone on the Working Group ― particularly those on the Drafting Committee; and
  • to Susan Kleimann, David Lipscomb and Annetta Cheek:
    • for preparing Draft 1 and Draft 1.1 of the standard; and
    • for the Herculean task of responding, in writing ― so carefully and so usefully ― to the 238 comments on Draft 1.

Stay up to date

The next scheduled update on the project is a discussion panel at Access for all the online plain language conference in October 2020.  You can hear:

  • from members of WG 11’s Drafting Committee, by video; and
  • from ISO TC 37’s Chair, Laurent Romary, and me (the WG 11 Convener, Christopher Balmford), in a live panel discussion.