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German Research Institute for Public Administration

Center for Administrative Communication

Administrative language as a barrier

Modern administrations strive to overcome barriers and improve accessibility to their services for individuals and enterprises.

One high barrier is the style of language used in administration. Administrative language is largely based on legal jargon. Official documents need to communicate facts and rulings reliably and must stand up to juridical scrutiny. Therefore, legal precision often takes precedence over other communicative concerns such as intelligibility for laypeople, recipients' need for information, or politeness of expression. The resulting ‘officialese’ is unpopular with citizens and administrators alike.

Citizens read official documents with displeasure and intimidation, or not at all. This decreases administrative efficiency: people may miss deadlines because they skipped important passages while reading, for instance, or they may fail to comply with obligations they did not understand.

Likewise, administrative personnel often also experience the official linguistic style as burdensome. Many find it difficult to grasp themselves what they are made to communicate. However, particular linguistic styles are emblematic of particular organizational cultures. Members of administrative organizations grow accustomed to certain linguistic practices and adopt them as part of their professional identity. Deviations from organizational linguistic norms are frequently perceived as possible threats to established procedure, as potentially jeopardizing the certainty of the law.

Overcoming the administrative language barrier

Administrations can improve their relations with individuals and enterprises by embracing a linguistic style which is widely intelligible and legally precise at the same time. Yet, a linguistic style that is only superficially attached onto a façade cannot have a lasting impact. Linguistic practices need to be fitted to the organization, anchored to its culture, and molded to its specific requirements.

As a consultancy at the German Research Institute for Public Administration (FÖV), we support administrations at all levels through research-based advice on language and communication. We provide customized seminars for administrative personnel, offer translation services from ‘officialese’ into plain language, and counsel organizations on how to transform their language use in a sustainable manner.

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