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Plain writing in government: Agencies, plainly speaking, aren’t there yet

(Kiyoshi Ota - Bloomberg) (Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg)

When it comes to clear, well-written communications with the public, the Social Security Administration gets an A.  The Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development get D’s and F’s.

Those are the highs and lows of the second annual report card on how well federal agencies are complying with a new law requiring them to ditch bureaucratese in favor of  “plain writing” that the average person can understand.

“We still have a long way to go to make government documents easier to understand,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), author of the 2010 Plain Writing Act. He has introduced a bill to extend the law to the full text of regulations so ordinary people can better comprehend them.

“A lot of it has to do with institutional culture,” Braley said of the federal agencies given low grades on the Center for Plain Languages assessment. The nonprofit group devoted to plain writing determined how well 20 federal agencies are complying with the law and communicating with the public. “They can’t see a different way of thinking about how they write for their intended audience because they’re so used to writing in gobbledygook.”

The plain language center, a group of volunteers dedicated to improving the way bureaucracies talk to taxpayers, also gave high marks to the Agriculture Department, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Small Business Administration and Transportation Department.

To make the assessments, the center took writing samples from two departments in each agency either through submissions or from the agencies’ Web sites. The first score grades how well the government is following the law, which requires a high-level official in charge of implementing the law, an explanation on the agency’s Web site, training and other steps.

The second score looks at the clarity of agencies’ communications: Do they use the passive or active voice? What about jargon and legalese? Are sentences too long?

“Plain writing is hard,” said Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker from Falls Church who founded the plain language center. “It’s always easier to drag out last year’s report and not worry about the way you’re communicating what’s in it.”

The law requires official communications to use active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns, among other tricks, to make government writing clearer. “Addressees” must become a more direct “you,” for example, and clunky coinages and acronyms are no-nos. But there is no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part.

Here are some high and low points from last year’s federal communications with the public.

Good writing from the SSA:

“Please let us know right away about any:

Changes in your workers’ compensation or public disability benefit payments

Lump-sum award(s) you receive

 Other payments you receive that increase or decrease your workers’ compensation or public disability benefit payments.”


Bad writing from the Treasury Department:

“We are taking steps to improve processing time for Certificates of Label Approval (COLAs) without compromising our mandates under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act).”


 Bad writing from HUD:

“The Obama Administration has implemented a number of programs to assist homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure and otherwise struggling with their monthly mortgage payments. The majority of these programs are administered through the U.S. Treasury Department and HUD. This page provides a summary of these various programs. Please continue reading in order to determine which program can best assist you.”

Here’s the full report card:

V7 17Nov13 C4PL ReportCard AgencyScores

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.

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