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Chrissie stands out for women with plain English

Chrissie Maher OBE, was selected as winner of the Public Affairs category from an overwhelming number of nominations for the ‘Women in Public Life’ awards. The event was hosted by BBC presenter, Sian Willams for the Dods and Scottish Widows 2010 awards and held a further surprise for Chrissie when she was also selected for the category of ‘Outstanding achiever of the year’.

(Clicking on a photo will show a larger version, with more information.)

(More pictures of the awards)

Bad weather conditions stopped Chrissie travelling to the Northumberland Hotel at Trafalgar Square, for the event, but Plain English Campaign’s spokesperson, Marie Clair, was able to accept the awards on Chrissie’s behalf. The first acceptance speech was based on the two plain words “what” and “do” emphasising Chrissie’s wish that everyone should question information that is not clear, and that the writer should do something to improve the message. Marie read a second impromptu acceptance speech direct from the text sent by Chrissie who wanted to be sure that the attendees were in no doubt about her pride and gratitude for both these awards.

Anthony Thompson, Head of Public Affairs, Scottish Widows commented, “The Women in Public Life Awards are widely seen as a beacon for excellence, shining a light on exceptional leadership across the UK’s public life and those who will make a real difference in the future. To be nominated is in itself a great achievement as it shows just how well respected these women are in their fields. Scottish Widows is proud to support the awards and hopes they will encourage and inspire women working in public life for many years to come.”

The awards are especially meaningful at a time of resource constraints within the Civil Service. Chrissie’s direct involvement in the Government’s work of the Rayner Review in 1983, resulted in the editing of hundreds of thousands of government documents saving taxpayers’ money by cutting out unnecessary jargon and gobbledygook. The training of many civil servants to use plain English for their internal communications also improved working relations and processes. The campaign encouraged the introduction of plain English to government documents with their ‘Inside Write Awards’, for the clearest internal government communications. Tony Wright MP, Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, recognised the impact of this award during the public enquiry into the language of government and parliament.

Chrissie says, “The efforts and investments by civil servants to improve the clarity of communications since the early 1980’s had a direct and very obvious effect on government communications when the UK government scrapped 15,700 official forms rewrote another 21,300 and reviewed another 46,900. That saved the taxpayer about £9 million. My greatest fear is that this foundation will be wiped out by the budget cuts needed in the public service. We are working with civil servants to hold onto those valuable benefits of using plain English, in the hope that cutting words will help reduce the need to cut services.”

Other early collaborations with civil servants and the campaign’s professional editors focused on the UK’s Royal Mail redirection of mail forms. Before the rewrite, the form had an 87% error rate and the Royal Mail was spending £10,000 a week to deal with complaints and reprocessing of the forms. The new form reduced the error rate and saved the Royal Mail £500,000 in the first nine months.

The Passport Office found 52% of people sending in a passport application form could not fill it in properly. When they redesigned and rewrote the form in plain English, only 3% of people failed to fill it in properly. The new form saved 370,000 hours of administration a year.

Plain English Campaign continues to appeal to the government for cuts in unnecessary words to ease the need for cuts in necessary services.

... and a few words from Marie

It was one of the greatest honours to stand and speak on behalf of another person. To have trust placed in your words, whether in representing one person or many, is a responsibility that rests on many people, particularly in public service.

To speak up for yourself takes courage and a confidence that doesn't always come easily, but to express the opinions and feelings of others is a responsibility that requires understanding, compassion and clear interpretation.

These are the values that enabled Chrissie to start a campaign that provides a voice for people who struggle, through no fault of their own, with understanding public information that contains jargon and gobbledygook.

These are the values that we should have in mind whenever we communicate with others.

In my role of spokesperson for the campaign, speaking on behalf of the public who contact us with their queries and frustrations about unclear language, has become part of my daily life and work. To represent Chrissie and voice her words at these awards was a personal honour that I accepted with more nerves than speaking on any radio, television interview, or berating any jargon user. But it reminded me of the honour, as well as the responsibility, that we carry when we speak for another person.

Chrissie has always been ready to use technology when it helps the case for plain English. At the recent awards her use of text messaging served to get her speech to the stage when bad weather on the motorway stopped her journey to London.

Here is that text speech -

I accept this award with great pride and will mention it wherever and whenever I get the chance so that I can see the pride in other people, especially the women, for their part in the work of Plain English Campaign. I will do as many radio interviews as I can and will be glad to spread the word starting in church on Sunday. This award is not just for me - it will make a lot of people happy. My family are overjoyed and are organising a party here in Derbyshire as I can't be with you and the other winners tonight.

You can also read a copy of an article published in the Stockport Express reporting the event

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