Federal Diary: Time for a plain-language revolution

By Joe Davidson
Friday, October 30, 2009

Sometimes Uncle Sam sounds like he has marbles in his mouth.

Read, if you can, the accompanying excerpt from an Education Department regulation, which was printed in Wednesday's Federal Register. This one sentence has more than 220 words, nearly the equivalent of a typed page, double-spaced. It's typical of impenetrable fedspeak that produces more indigestion than information.

But help is on the way for federal employees who want to break from the tradition of writing so that nobody understands what they're trying to say.

At the National Press Club on Friday afternoon, the Center for Plain Language will hold a symposium to encourage the use of plain language.

"Now, there is a real compelling need to address this issue," said Alan Siegel, one of the driving forces behind the plain-language movement. Clearly written documents, rather than the gobbledygook that often passes for government communications, is vital in the effort to restore trust in government, said Siegel, whose Siegel+Gale consulting firm is sponsoring the symposium.

Plain-language advocates got a big boost from President Obama on his first full day in office, when he issued a memo calling for transparency in government. "Government should be participatory," his memo said. "Public engagement enhances the government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions."

Writing like the Education Department example discourages participatory government. Such badly written documents decrease "the effectiveness of democracy" and, "we believe, in some cases, denies people their rights," said Annetta Cheek, chairman of the Center for Plain Language.

The Education Department doesn't defend its writing, such as it is. Acknowledging that reading the regulation is like "trying to put together a puzzle," David Hoff, an agency spokesman, said the department is working on making its communications "more readable and accessible" while retaining "the legal clarity that's required."

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is pushing government agencies toward clarity with proposed legislation that would require them to use plain language and defines it as language "that the intended audience can readily understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized."

One agency known for getting it right is Citizenship and Immigration Services. Check out its Web site at www.uscis.gov. It's clear, clean and easy to understand. The agency's parent, the Department of Homeland Security, offers monthly training in the use of plain language and last month held its first awards ceremony to honor employees who communicate clearly.

Another site, plainlanguage.gov, encourages the use of clear communications by providing before and after examples of government writing. You can see original documents and the same, more easily understood information after it was translated into plain language.

"Writing clearly is more difficult than people might imagine," but it saves time and money in the long run, said Amy Bunk, co-chair of PLAIN, the Plain Language Action and Information Network, which sponsors plainlanguage.gov.

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