A Push for Plain English

By Stephen Barr
Monday, October 29, 2007

Gobbledygook. It's the stuff of government. Maybe its No. 1 export.

Now, a first-term House member, Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), wants to do away with the wordy, pompous and confusing forms and memos that spew out of the bureaucracy every day.

He has introduced legislation that would require the government to write in "plain language" -- simple words, short sentences and no jargon, so that people can understand tax forms, college aid applications and other documents distributed to the public.

"Unless there is aggressive or intensive oversight, no agency is going to change the way it does business," he said.

Braley is a lawyer and knows that lawyers generally get blamed for the legalese in federal paperwork. He also knows that Congress is a factory for gobbledygook.

He developed a passion for plain language when he began practicing law in 1983, when the Iowa Supreme Court adopted easy-to-understand wording for jury instructions, he said. Braley began talking it up with other lawyers and writing on the topic.

Using plain language would improve services to the public, save time at agencies spent on answering questions about what documents mean and make it easier to hold agencies accountable for their work, Braley said.

A local office of the Veterans Affairs Department rewrote a standard form to make it more clear and the number of telephone calls into the office about the form dropped from 1,200 to 200 a year, Braley said.

The innovations being carried out locally can be made to work at the national level, he said. "We need to do a lot of education about effective communication," Braley said. "In the past, that has not been a priority in how the federal government does its work."

The bill suggests that an agency may achieve plain language by reading the "Plain English Handbook," published by the Securities and Exchange Commission, or the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

To avoid imposing a crushing paperwork burden on agencies, Braley's bill would apply to future documents and would not require agencies to rewrite old forms, letters, publications, notices and instructions.

The bill would not apply to federal regulations, which have been widely criticized through the years for using muddled language. But previous efforts to improve regulation writing have only partially succeeded, because many regulations deal with politically sensitive issues and sometimes are shaped by high-stakes lobbying in Congress and at the White House. Backers may not want them to be too clear.

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