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Just what the heck is our government trying to tell us?

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 10:50 PM

You can't work in this town 10 minutes without drowning in gobbledygook.

Acronyms, abbreviations, jargon and legalese act as code, keeping information restricted to the cognoscente.

A "top secret" stamp does much the same thing, but at least that is a direct, easily understood statement.

Unfortunately, government too often shuns the simple in favor of the complex. Fortunately, things are changing.

Last month, President Obama signed into law a measure that tells Uncle Sam to speak and write plainly. In May, Obama issued an executive order, instructing agencies to write job announcements in clear language.

That Sam needs an act of Congress and a presidential order to get his communication act together is an indication of how bad things have been.

The law defines its purpose: "to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use."

"Use" is a keyword. And useability was a key concept discussed at a workshop sponsored by the Center for Plain Language on Wednesday.

"It's hard, sometimes, when you're inside the Beltway to think about what people outside your agency don't understand," Whitney Quesenbery, a workshop facilitator, said in an interview before the session.

Consider this before-and-after example from the National Marine Fisheries Service posted on plainlanguage.gov, a government Web site maintained by federal employees who volunteer to help Sam speak clearly.

Before:

"After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Education Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops."

I have no idea what that means. The "after" version is much better:

"After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing each fishing season."

The "before" example is the kind of mind-numbing stuff that regularly made reading the Federal Register sheer punishment. But even that dour collection of documents is changing.

Check out federalregister.gov. This sleek, new site, with an unofficial version of the material published in the daily Federal Register, makes life much easier for those for whom the document is a must-read.

Yet even with the new look, some Federal Register items remain only for the heavily degreed, like this one: "The Food and Drug Administration is classifying the tissue adhesive with adjunct wound closure device intended for topical approximation."

One person who might understand what that means is Jeffrey B. Nemhauser, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor who develops training materials, fact sheets and online information related to terrorism preparedness.

Because that work is technical and complex, "we know we need to do a better job of communicating to our audience," Nemhauser said, speaking just outside the workshop.

If his audience doesn't quickly understand the instructions he prepares for use in a terrorism attack, the consequences could be deadly.

If clearly communicating information that can save lives isn't incentive enough, the saving money certainly will be.

"Many studies have shown that plain language affects your bottom line - you can save time, personnel resources, and money," says plainlanguage.gov.

A Veterans Affairs form letter generated, on average, 91.4 calls to counselors each month before it was rewritten in plain language, according to the Web site. With the new version, the number of calls has dropped to 16.

Younger vets need more help getting jobs

Finding jobs for unemployed veterans is one good way to honor them this Veterans Day. Although their overall unemployment rate actually is lower than the general rate for all Americans, that's not the case for young vets, many of whom are just returning from war.

The average unemployment rate for veterans age 18-24 was 21.1 percent in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For non-veterans in the same age group, the figure was 16.6 percent.

That's one reason slacker agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Education Department, need to get on the stick. Vets were just 6.3 percent of the HHS workforce last year, compared with an executive branch average of 26 percent. Education was only slightly better, at 8 percent.

An Education Department statement said it is actively supporting the administration's Veterans Employment Initiative and has developed a plan to improve its employment of veterans.

That plan includes training managers "on hiring flexibilities such as the use of Veteran's Preference." In fiscal 2010, 66 vets were hired by the department, which was 5 percent over its goal.

An HHS statement said it realizes "that we have more to do. The Secretary has made increasing the number of veterans and military family members at HHS a priority."

Asked for specifics on how the agency plans to increase veterans' employment, a spokesperson said it is not ready to release details.

If not now, when?

Does HHS know it's been a year since Obama issued an executive order directing HHS and other agencies to "develop an agency-specific Operational Plan for promoting employment opportunities for veterans"?

Apparently not.

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