Federal agencies are now required to keep it simple

October 16, 2011

Put simply, the government wants to be clear.

Bulky, bureaucratic words like “pursuant” and “hereby” are out; active voice and basic vocabulary are in as federal agencies begin implementing the Plain Writing Act, a piece of legislation that requires government letters, publications, forms, notices and instructions to be written in plain language.

“You would not think that that was a revolutionary” concept, said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who introduced the legislation. But, “this has been a challenge of epic proportions.”

As of last week, which marked the one-year anniversary of the act, federal agencies — and the contractors that write for them — must ensure new and substantially revised documents are “clear, concise, well-organized” and follow other general best practices for writing.

Braley, speaking at a workshop at the National Press Club last week, said the act will require a “fundamental shift in how people write.”

The event, hosted by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language, provided a welcoming crowd; one speaker’s call to eliminate “utilize” and simply employ “use” drew cheers, while mention of the passive voice (and the infamous “Mistakes were made” phrase) brought chuckles.

But agency representatives said they’ve seen internal resistance from employees concerned that federal documents require a certain amount of legalese. Plain-language advocates counter that writing more clearly makes it easier for the public to comply with regulations and can reduce the number of calls or messages an agency receives.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — housed within the Department of Homeland Security — started its own plain-language program in 2008. The unit has simplified its Web site to offer easy-to-follow instructions, said Kathryn A. Catania, a Web content editor within the agency’s communications office and co-chair of an interagency working group on plain language.

“We’re stopping just regurgitating the law on our Web site,” Catania said.

“Before, it was just a best practice,” she said of using simple language. “Now that it’s a law, that’s a lot more ammunition.”

Still Braley is not satisfied. He said he will next tackle government regulations, which are excluded from the new law.

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