Culture change — is it really possible?

It was a winter’s day in 2008. We had just given what we hoped was a very convincing presentation to the Communications team at the Office of the Auditor-General. Now we were faced with a question from the Communications Manager that demanded an honest answer: ‘Is it really possible?’

A little doubt was understandable. Changing the way the 120+ team of highly competent auditors, analysts, and policy staff thought about writing was a very tall order. Was it possible to change hearts and minds, to instil a culture of plain writing into a quasi-legal organisation with such a serious purpose? You bet it was!

And the proof came just 2 years later. In 2010, the Office of the Auditor-General and Audit New Zealand won the premier award at the WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards — Plain English Champion: Best Organisation. The independent panel of judges were enthusiastic in their praise and the late-night email from the Communications Manager said it all.

‘We are all ecstatic; the Auditor-General has texted ‘magnificent’; and I won’t sleep a wink tonight! It really was possible…’

That story was the foreword to Rewrite in one of our early drafts but space constraints saw it cut. However, you can read a detailed account of how the Office of the Auditor-General achieved their plain language success in Part 3 of Rewrite.

On the face of it, Rewrite is about how to transform an organisation’s writing style — emails, letters, reports, bulletins, annual reports, financial documents , technical documents — the lot.

But organisations are made up of people. And documents are written by people — human beings who cling to tradition, resist change, know better, can’t see why, and unwittingly stand in the way of progress.

So Rewrite is really about how to empower and support the people who really ‘get’ plain language so that they can work with the other people who don’t. It’s about helping to get commitment from the top, about getting enough resources to really achieve something, about getting managers expecting more, about turning reluctant objectors into passionate advocates, and about making plain language ‘cool’. It’s also about recognising the reality of tackling such a daunting challenge — people can thwart the best of plans! But, inspired, trained, and supported, it’s your people who will make it possible.