Shortly after he took office, Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski was presented with a six-page letter to send a veteran's widow. She feared the VA, which had treated her husband, might make his alcoholism public.
The proposed letter, drafted by the VA's legal staff, cited the applicable laws on privacy and record-keeping "as only a lawyer can," Derwinski recalled yesterday. "It was six pages of gobbledygook . . . . I tore it up in a fit of anger."
In its place, Derwinski drafted a three-paragraph letter. His first paragraph expressed regret over her husband's death, the second assured her "no one will know" of her husband's medical condition, and the third urged her to write him if she had any further questions, Derwinski said.
The incident, which the secretary outlined to a meeting of VA correspondence managers yesterday morning, was a vivid illustration of his demand that the huge VA bureaucracy return to the use of "plain, old-fashioned English." Letters should be simple, direct and, whenever possible, "should show some feeling," Derwinski said.
To Derwinski, who spent 24 years in Congress with a carefully trained, letter-writing staff behind him, said improving the VA's language has become a high priority, part of his effort to change the department's image as an uncaring bureaucracy. "The classic rule in a bureaucracy is that if you can say it in 10 pages, say it in 10 pages," he complained.
Determined to instill a belief that brevity is better, Derwinski yesterday brought an Air Force language specialist to the VA to critique government writing and drum in the message.
With a wad of multi-colored felt-tipped pens and an overhead projector, Lt. Col. James S. O'Rourke, a Cambridge-trained English professor, cajoled and joked his way though 90 minutes worth of government memoranda and correspondence.
In the 12 years he has been tracking the way bureaucrats use the language, O'Rourke said, he has captured some monumental obfuscations. Among his favorites:
"Sea-air interface climatic disturbances" for waves.
"Electronically adjusted, color-coded vehicular-flow control mechanism" for a traffic light.
"Individual aerial deceleration mechanism" for parachutes.
"Combat emplacement evacuator" for shovel.
Most government writing is overwritten and fails to address the needs of those for whom the material is being written, O'Rourke said.
Bureaucrats tend to overuse individual words as well, he said. "Optimum" and "utilize" are the most overworked words in the government lexicon, he said. Workers should use "best" and "use," O'Rourke said, but many bureaucrats shun them, fearing they are short.
Good writing is not difficult and does not require a college education, he said. "You had everything you needed to know by the time you left eighth grade," he told the correspondence managers.
Later, O'Rourke said he believes the quality of writing in the government has improved in recent years, spurred by the efforts of executives such as Derwinski and the late Malcolm Baldrige, commerce secretary in the Reagan administration.
The military has also made major strides, perhaps because "the writing was so bad" that it was causing problems, he said.
For his part, Derwinski didn't hestitate to attack lawyers and doctors as two prime offenders in the government. Lawyers have to realize their letters are "not an application for membership on the Supreme Court" and doctors "are especially bad when they put it in writing," he said.