The guardians of clear and concise writing in government awarded top honors Tuesday to the Department of Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission for the best job last year turning bureaucratese into plain writing for the public.
Based on 126 documents submitted by the agencies, the Center for Plain Language graded them on writing, visual presentation and compliance with a 2010 law called the Plain Writing Act, which requires the government to, to put it plainly, write better.
“We’re seeing some significant progress,” said Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker from Falls Church, Va., and longtime evangelist for plain writing who leads the government affairs committee for the Center for Plain Language, a Northern Virginia-based advocacy group.
“It’s hard to write plainly,” Cheek said. “The result looks easy. But writing bureaucratically is a lot easier.”
“There are some people who think, ‘If it’s not legalistic and bureaucratic, it’s not official,”’ she said, describing good writing as “counter to the culture of the government.”
One of the winning entries comes from the Transportation Security Administration, which shows visual agility with this missive for security requirements at airports:
The poor performers landing at the bottom of the 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card were the Interior, State and Education departments. Interior and State didn’t submit writing samples, and their programs are anemic, the report said, while Education earned passing grades for writing and design but a “D” in compliance with the law.
State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke declined to comment. At the Education Department, Deputy Press Secretary Raymond Charles said in a statement:
“The U.S. Department of Education is dedicated to writing in plain language for all of its various audiences, including teachers, parents, education organizations, researchers and the general public. We are committed to continuous improvements and are taking steps to be in full compliance with the law.”
The jargon-filled entry below, in contrast with the TSA instructions, comes from the U.S. Coast Guard:
Here’s another example of plain-language failure, this time from the Education Department. It features a couple of winding, seemingly never-ending sentences full of jargon. And it concludes with, “The study cannot rigorously disentangle these components.” We cannot “rigorously disentangle” this writing.
The law requires federal officials to translate their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”
Official communications must now employ the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. Agencies must appoint a senior official to oversee the law’s implementation, among other steps.
The law was slow getting off the ground. But last year, 19 of 22 large agencies were complying, finally.
Cheek noted that even the top performers submitted some flawed writing. Spelling and grammatical errors accounted for 18 percent of the problems flagged by a linguistic analysis tool that the plain language center used to analyze the samples. Subject/verb agreement errors, incorrect verb forms, passive verbs, complex or long words: These were some of the common errors that made even some winning entries unclear.
Some poor writing examples from last year’s entries, annotated by the Center for Plain Language:
Hidden verbs: take a look (should be just “look”), make adjustment (should be “adjust”), take into consideration (should be “consider”), take action (vs. “act”), conducting an investigation (vs. “investigate”)
Noun clusters: National Electric Transmission Congestion Study, Recovery Act Interconnection Transmission Planning, Electricity Policy Technical Assistance Program, User menu global search
Sentences that are too long: During this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, we must continue our focus on urban, rural and economically disadvantaged communities to ensure that everyone – regardless of age, race, economic status or ethnicity – has access to clean water, clean air and the opportunity to live, work and play in healthy communities. (57 words)
Named after two former U.S. senators, Sherman Minton and Homer Earl Capehart, the eight-story Minton-Capehart Federal Building is located in the central business district of Indianapolis across from Memorial Park and within blocks of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. (44 words)