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In the first part of this blog post series, I discussed research showing that low literacy affects a large proportion of New Zealand’s working population. In this section, I’ll explain why that matters and what is doing about it.

Why this matters for government websites

Adult Learning and Life Skill (ALL) survey

This suggests that there may be a systematic but unnoticed bias in how the public sector designs services. What government workers and consultants find easy to understand may not be the case for other parts of society.

We know that people in the public sector are doing their best to make websites and publications simple and easy to understand for everyone but comprehension is a very real and common barrier.

* See the previous blog post for explanations of levels.

The blind side of research

The explanation lies in the way that research works practically.

We have a well-stocked toolbox of methods and channels – surveys, analytics, interviews, observations, focus groups and co-design. But with time pressure, limited funds and capabilities we can’t necessarily use all those tools, every time. For researchers in the digital space, this often means using online surveys and online tracking tools. Sometimes, a limited number of in-depth user sessions, paper surveys or interviews will also happen. It’s not uncommon to simply ask a colleague or friend for feedback. Quick, easy and much less costly!

While these methods and channels are very useful and often used well, they all work on the premise that participants are able to read, understand – and to some extent write – in English – at least to a basic level.

People who are not confident reading, or not confident in the English language are, by definition, excluded from these forms of research.

For people who have basic skills in reading English, fear of embarrassment may make them less likely to volunteer to fill in a survey or attend other studies. At the same time, more verbal methods of research like telephone surveys have become far less practical as increasing numbers of New Zealanders stop having landlines. As a result, people with lower confidence in their English language skills are often invisible to research.

What are we doing about it?

While that’s still largely true, we may need to accept that the data and insights we’ve collected have an important gap. They may tell us little to nothing about some of our country’s most vulnerable people - the ones we most want to empower.

We’ve scratched the surface and found something that matters to us. So here’s what we’re going to be working on over the next few months:

  • design and test non-text and low-text content, along with other key information on
  • translate some of our content into other languages
  • establish some gap research into literacy and English as a second language. For that, we will: work with literacy organisations in New Zealand to learn more about low literacy, and establish a ‘New to New Zealand’ panel, creating a consistent research and testing panel of immigrants.

In conclusion, then…

I don’t think that’s quite true. We care. The reality is that there are countless passionate, motivated people in government who want to contribute to the welfare of New Zealanders. As civil servants, we want to help people use the internet to manage all the big and small interactions they might have with government.

We know how powerful the internet can be. We know how much time and trouble it can save both the public and the public sector to ‘just do it online’. But we might not always be clear on what makes things easy – especially not given the different contexts and circumstances of all the people on our islands.

We care. But do we know enough about how this push to the internet is affecting those being left behind? Enough to balance out and counteract the confusion and negative impacts it’s causing? Probably not.

So let’s get onto it: To the data!

Utility links and page information