Legible Policy Glossary

The word Legible comes to us from the late 14c, from Late Latin: legibilis, “that can be read”, from Latin legere, “to read”. But lest we think that to be “legible” begins and ends at transparency, or the clarity of the “writing” before us, it is interesting to take an extra step back in time, and explore the etymology of “reading”: from the old English rædan (West Saxon), redan (Anglian) “to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide; arrange, equip; forebode; explain; learn by reading; put in order” (related to ræd, red “advice”), from Proto-Germanic *redan (cognates: Old Norse raða, Old Frisian reda, Dutch raden, Old High German ratan, German raten “to advise, counsel, guess”. So even though legible policy can (and must) pass through the realm of a good and honest explanation–the hows and the whys–we must also take into account that in the end legibility–which is also about counsel, discussion, persuasion, arranging and guessing–is in the end a tool for us to collectively make sense of our world. To frame, deliberate and envision. And to ask ourselves difficult questions at times, with no easy answers.


What is a legible policy? In the context of policies often so opaque and inaccessible as to be utterly unapparent to many citizens, I like to think of a single qualitative metric by which to understand this. If a policy is actively discussed, before, during and after implementation, the relevant authority has at least demonstrated positive momentum towards policy legibility. But here, I would like to push that thinking further, for beyond legibility, and beyond a conversation, is true participation in the policymaking process, the adoption and implementation of policies, and the process of iterating policy over time in response to the changing needs of the city.


Legible policy…is partly about making policy (and law) accessible: using language which is easily understandable, making things visible and open and readable, potentially also less complex and more consistent across contexts (for example, as the Common Good movement in the US proposes), and not hiding policy changes. …The three components of legible policy which seem important…are accessibility, transparency of intentions, and the potential for action.


Legibility should “mean more than just seeing and understanding—more than even engaging, but actually acting upon things to make a difference…Real and sustained change: power, and agency. Even something visceral, such as rage, fear, passion, skepticism or fairness. Legibility in which citizens gain a real change in perception, a better understanding of possible impacts of their decisions, and of, first and foremost, the broader political and economic relations, interests and power of companies, polluters and governments.”


Legible policy, which has roughly come to mean accessible with regards to its contents and transparent with regards to its goals and intentions. In this way, the idea of legibility has arguably played the role of a container for our hopes of consensus. It is as if, in stressing the importance of legible policy, we were lamenting: “If only we could make people understand what’s best for them in the long run!” Yet, from the soft-systemic, agonistic perspective … that may not be a realistic objective after all. The development of policies, as an instance of systemic design, may irremediably operate in a horizon of conflict. If this is the case, legibility qua accessibility and transparency may play the equally (if not more) important role of a minimal requirement for an accommodation of conflicting worldviews.