Advocates of the Plain Writing Act prod federal agencies to keep it simple

April 8, 2012

Federal agencies must report their progress this week in complying with the Plain Writing Act, a new decree that government officials communicate more conversationally with the public.

Speaking plainly, they ain’t there yet.

Which leaves, in the eyes of some, a basic and critical flaw in how the country runs. “Government is all about telling people what to do,” said Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker from Falls Church and longtime evangelist for plain writing. “If you don’t write clearly, they’re not going to do it.”

But advocates such as Cheek estimate that federal officials have translated just 10 percent of their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” as the law requires.

Official communications must now employ the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. “Addressees” must now become, simply, “you.” Clunky coinages like “incentivizing” (first known usage 1970) are a no-no. The Code of Federal Regulations no longer goes by the abbreviation CFR.

But with no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part, advocates worry that plain writing has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list, like many another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress. They say many agencies have heeded the 2010 law merely by appointing officials, creating working groups and setting up Web sites.

What’s more, the law’s demand for clearer language seems like make-work to skeptics who say there is no money to pay for the promotion of clarity and that the status quo is the best path to accuracy.

“It’s definitely an ongoing battle,” said Glenn Ellmers, plain-writing coordinator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’re trying pretty hard. But when you’re talking about something as complex as a nuclear power plant, you can’t get around specialized language. The really technical people take a little pride in using it.”

As a concession to them, the commission is simplifying only the cover letters of plant inspection reports, while leaving intact the highly technical and all-but-impenetrable text of the actual documents.

“Part of this is we have a change in culture,” said Ed Burbol, the Defense Department’s plain-language coordinator, who oversees two full-time staff members assigned to promoting clearer communication. “We’re going to encounter resistance.”

A retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Burbol acknowledged that “some people here can write very well and some people can’t write at all,” a problem he attributes to the large number of service members who return to work as civilians.

Consider the next sentence: “This subpart identifies those products in which the Administrator has found an unsafe condition as described in Sec. 39.1 and, as appropriate, prescribes inspections and the conditions and limitations, if any, under which those products may continue to be operated.”

And here’s the revision of the sentence, a Federal Aviation Administration guideline, by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language: “Airworthiness directives specify inspections you must carry out, conditions and limitations you must comply with, and any actions you must take to resolve an unsafe condition.”

Cheek, the retired federal worker, still devotes at least 20 hours a week to the tiny nonprofit plain-language center she founded for federal employees. To inspire healthy competition when the law passed two years ago, the group started giving out annual awards for the best and worst of government-speak, including a Turn-Around prize for most improved agency. The annual ClearMark awards banquet, scheduled this year for May 22, is held at the National Press Club.

In this era of shrinking government, advocates of plain writing say their causecan actually save money.

They cite Washington state’s “Plain Talk” program: A revamped letter tripled the number of businesses paying a commonly ignored use tax, bringing $2 million in new revenue in a year, according to law professor Joseph Kimble, author of a forthcoming book on the benefits of plain language.

And after the Department of Veterans Affairs revised one of its letters, calls to a regional call center dropped from about 1,100 a year to about 200, Kimble said.

“People complain about government red tape and getting government out of your hair,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), House sponsor of the Plain Writing Act. “If every one of these forms was written in plain language, the number of contacts to federal agencies would plummet.” He’s started a “Stop B.S.” (for “Bureaucrat Speak”) campaign soliciting examples of badly written public documents.

The law exempts regulations from its mandate for clearer communication, although last fall the Obama administration ordered agencies to write a summary of their technical proposed or final regulations, and post it at the top of the text.

But Braley says that’s not enough. He’s introduced a bill to extend the law to the full text of regulations so ordinary people can understand them.

Americans have always loved plain talkers. But at some point, scholars point out, inscrutable language became associated with high status.

“A lot of people in government wield their jargon to make themselves seem very impressive,” said Karen Schriver, a plain-language expert at Carnegie Mellon University.

There have been many attempts to turn this trend around, including at the presidential level. Richard Nixon required that the Federal Register be written in “layman’s terms.” Jimmy Carter issued executive orders to make government regulations “cost-effective” and easy to understand. (Ronald Reagan rescinded the orders.)

The Clinton White House revived plain language as a major initiative, and Vice President Al Gore presented monthly “No Gobbledygook” awards to federal workers who translated jargon into readable language.

None of these efforts stuck, although some agencies — including Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service — took the mission seriously. The IRS won the Center for Plain Language’s top prize last year for “intelligible writing in public life.”

And then there is the difficulty of promoting revision while preserving precision. At a January meeting of the Plain Language Information & Action Network, a group of federal employees devoted to the cause, members from 20 federal agencies listened as Meredith Weberg, an editor at the Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office, described how she butted up against an “obstinate” boss.

In attempting to simplify a handbook for auditors, Weberg changed “concur” and “not concur” to “agree” and “disagree.” The manager changed it back.

One of her allies in the cause of plain writing had to, well, concur with the boss’s decision. “A concurring opinion says Justice so-and-so agrees with the conclusion of the court,” said Ken Meardan, who writes regulations for the Agriculture Department. “He may not agree” with the reasoning.

Weberg said she let this one go.

The new law is hitting larger obstacles.

“They didn’t really make it plain as to what my responsibilities are,” said the newly appointed plain-language coordinator at the Department of Transportation, describing her assignment from management. She looked bewildered.

Her counterpart at the U.S. Agency for International Development had an even bigger problem: She could not get behind an electronic firewall for online training.

“We have a lot of classified information,” Christine Brown told the group. “We’re not getting very far with this. No one has the resources.”

USAID has appointed a plain-language committee. But it is just starting to train its members to write plainly.

“A lot of people didn’t think this was the kind of thing you should do a law about,” Cheek said. “We’ll see if it works.”

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