Judith G. Myers (Author)
Publication date: 07/01/2013
The Government Manager’s Guide to Plain Language
JUDITH GILLESPIE MYERS, PHD
SUCCEEDING AS A WRITER IN TODAY’S GOVERNMENT WORKPLACE
To succeed in the government workplace, you must be able to express yourself effectively, clearly, and persuasively. You must create documents that your readers will read and understand, that result in decisions, and that affect your readers as you intend. Each letter, report, or email you send out is a reflection of your agency or department. It is also a reflection of you personally.
Many of us find the whole process of writing daunting. Yet, with the right guidance and practice, we can all become better, more effective writers.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAIN LANGUAGE IN GOVERNMENT WRITING
Government writing presents a special challenge. Government documents often contain technical information, and they go out to multiple audiences—some highly knowledgeable, some less so.
Government documents have traditionally contained gobbledygook or “bureaucratese”—jargon and complicated, legalistic language. These uninviting letters and reports read as though they are addressed to technical experts and lawyers rather than to readers who need to be influenced or informed. However, a few small changes can turn these documents into clear, effective messages.
For decades, presidents and political leaders have urged clear writing in government documents. James Madison wrote in 1788, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” 1
Franklin Roosevelt cringed at the convoluted wording of the following blackout order during World War II:
Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.
“Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.” 2
In an attempt to cut the government gobbledygook, President Nixon ordered that the Federal Register be written in “layman’s terms.” President Carter signed an executive order directing that federal regulations be “easy to understand by those who are required to comply with them.” A few federal agencies responded by publishing regulations that were more clearly written, although the efforts were sporadic.
The Clinton administration issued monthly “No Gobbledygook Awards” to agencies that cut the bureaucratese. In 1998, President Clinton issued a directive requiring government agencies to use plain English. Several agencies set up what is now called PLAIN—the Plain Language Action and Information Network, a governmentwide group to improve communications from the federal government to the public. 3 The PLAIN website (www.plainlanguage.gov) offers numerous resources to help writers communicate more clearly.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010
Plain language in government writing became the law when President Obama passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The law defines plain writing as writing that is “clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”
This law requires each agency to use plain writing in every covered document the agency issues or substantially revises. A “covered document” is any document that meets one of the following criteria:
• Is necessary for obtaining any federal benefit or service or filing taxes
• Provides information about any federal benefit or service
• Explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the federal government administers or enforces.
In addition, the Plain Language Act requires that each agency take the following steps:
1. Designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency’s implementation of the act.
2. Communicate the act’s requirements to the agency’s employees.
3. Train agency employees in “plain writing” (defined as writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience).
4. Establish a process for overseeing the agency’s ongoing compliance with the act’s requirements.
5. Create and maintain a plain writing section of the agency’s website to inform the public of agency compliance with the requirements of the act, provide a mechanism for the agency to receive and respond to public input on agency implementation and agency reports required under the act, and be accessible from its homepage.
6. Designate one or more agency points-of-contact to receive and respond to public input on the implementation of the act. 4
Other Plain Language Programs
Efforts to eliminate bureaucratese have not only come from the White House. Many federal agencies, state government entities, and other organizations have initiated programs to enforce plain language:
• The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services offers a Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective. Its focus is health-related materials, but it can be used for many other topics.
• U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has a thriving plain-language program and provides training for its staff throughout the country. As part of that program, it developed a series of short, funny videos highlighting different plain-language techniques.
• The Federal Aviation Administration established FAA writing standards in March 2003 and posted the FAA’s Plain Language Manual.
• The Federal Register offers several resources online, including guidance on how to make regulations readable, how to draft a legal document, and how to rewrite a short rule.
• The Securities and Exchange Commission provides A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents online.
Many states and municipalities also have laws requiring that consumer statutes be written in plain language:
• The Washington State Government has been involved in the plain language movement since the mid–1990s. In 2005, the governor issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to use simple and clear language when communicating with citizens and businesses.
• Texas has a plain language contracts project, including a plain language submission form for contracts.
• The Mayor’s Office of Adult Education in New York City provides Easy to Read NYC: Guidelines for Clear and Effective Communication.
The Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., teaches federal judges to write their opinions in plain English. The American Bar Association has issued a resolution encouraging agencies to write regulations in plain language. 5
WHY USE PLAIN LANGUAGE?
Proponents assert that writing documents using plain language techniques is effective in a number of ways: It saves money, helps prevent lawsuits, engages readers, and makes you more successful.
Plain Language Saves Money
A 1991 study showed that writing memos in plain language instead of bureaucratese could save the U.S. Navy $250–$350 million a year. Naval officers were given business memos to read. Some memos were written in plain style and some in bureaucratic style. It took officers 17–23 percent less time to read a plain memo. Based on the average hourly pay for all naval personnel, the researchers calculated the yearly savings. 6
As part of a writing project, the Veterans Administration tracked the savings from rewriting just one form letter in plain language. In one year, a regional VA call center saw the number of calls drop from about 1,100 to about 200. A VA project coordinator estimated that, if this letter alone were adopted at VA offices nationwide, the VA would save more than $40,000 a year. Of course, the VA sends out thousands of different letters each year. 7
Agencies have been cutting down on administrative costs, too. In the 1970s the Federal Communications Commission rewrote the regulations for CB radios in plain English. The number of calls from people confused by the rules dropped so dramatically that the agency was able to reassign all five people who had been fielding questions full-time. 8
Examples of how using fewer words has resulted in reduced time and cost—and greater ease of public use—abound throughout the government. One outstanding example is the Farm Credit Administration, which revised a document explaining the Freedom of Information Act fees. The reduced size of the document—from 7,850 to 4,018 words—made it more user-friendly for the public and lowered the printing cost. Interestingly, the revised document contained more information than the original. 9
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