Minimal requirements

If you have ever played a video game, you must have noticed the “minimal requirements” explicitly mentioned on either the package the game came in or the description on the game store site you purchased the game from. These minimal requirements are an indication of what your system needs to be capable of in order to run the software that makes up the game.

The minimal requirements are seldom absolute. It’s usually not the case that a computer that does not comply with all the requirements cannot run the software, but the experience will be less, to the point of potentially being unsatisfactory. And that is, of course, an issue if you want to enjoy what you paid for.

Minimal knowledge requirements as a barrier to entry

Now, in the world removed from the virtual realms of video games, there are similar minimal requirements … the minimal knowledge requirements. And these requirements are all around us. Some of them are based on culture and assist in “compliance” with societal norms. Those are beneficial, but if you are an outsider you will be sticking out very soon and sometimes the understanding of these norms is assumed.

There are other minimal knowledge requirements as well. These are the exclusive and excluding ones, and are usually based on language.

I, the insider, speak a – usually technical – language with other insiders that you – the outsider – cannot understand. This language has an upside, in that it allows me to efficiently communicate with the other insider, but it excludes you, who does not speak my technical language.

The problem here is that when the outsider is actively implicated by the content and consequences of the communication, he or she tends to become disenfranchised very fast.

Think cancer patients, for example. Quite often, the details of the treatment that have profound impact on their being are discussed over their heads in language they cannot understand. How lost do you feel?

By using the key tool for mutual understanding – language – in a way to separate rather than to include, we distance people who do not have the minimal knowledge requirements.

Government administrations are often worst case examples …

And it’s not just medicine where this is a real problem. Government is quite bad at this as well. Some interactions with government are so convoluted that even people who are supposed to have the minimal knowledge requirements don’t understand whether or not they are in compliance with what the government asks of them.

This Economist article on the letter Donald Rumsfeld sent to the IRS is an interesting example of someone who explicitly admits not having the minimal knowledge requirements to return his taxes.

An initiative such as the Center for Plain Language in the US is an attempt to right such a wrong. We have had a similar initiative in Belgium for years, the Agency for Administrative Simplification, but both initiatives, while making inroads, appear to be mostly impacting the fringes.

But never by intent

The interesting thing is that this – according to me, based on the experiences I have had – is almost never by intent. Rather, administrations are so focused on getting done what needs to be done that working on that communication is one aspect that is too often forgotten

Interesting initiatives

There are other initiatives that are worth looking into. Take the Open Law Lab for example. This initiative looks at how to make law more accessible. It understands that there are certain aspects of law as it exists now that do not make it accessible to a large group of people. Instead, they need interpreters of the law, lawyers, to explain something that as well could be written in plain language.

There are other possibilities as well. Why make laws just understandable? Why not actively implicate as many interested people as possible in the process. I wrote about wiki-based law initiatives a while back. You can find the article here.

We need to aim for inclusiveness in our communications

At the most fundamental level, we should not exclude someone because of artificial differences. We should not play the game of information asymmetry but we need to level the playing field. The best way to do that, still, is by providing people with timely access to complete and accurate information provided in an understandable language.

The current inability of people to access our discussions is not to our advantage. No, it is our problem and our challenge. Imposing a requirement on ourselves to give as many people as possible access to the necessary information is essential to our long term credibility and viability, as any type of actor in a society which is becoming more and more replete with data.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to distill key information out of that data. That information, when adequately and comprehensively put in context, should ultimately lead to the development of insights and wisdom in what is our constituency, whether we are the government, an private sector organisation, a civil society structure … and the only way to realise that is to be as transparent as possible.