Report finds mixed progress on plain language

Friday - 7/20/2012, 9:28pm EDT

Annetta Cheek, chair, Center for Plain Language

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Since October 2010, plain writing in government communications has been the law of the land.

But the first review since agencies were required to create plans for cutting the "bureaucrat-ese" from their dealings with the public found mixed results at many agencies.

The Center for Plain Language, a group that advocates for clear writing in government documents, released a scorecard this week marking agency progress meeting requirements under the 2010 Plain Writing Act.

The Agriculture Department came in with the highest score — an "A" — of the 12 large agencies and departments graded.

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USDA was lauded for naming three senior officials tasked with implementing the law (the law called for at least one), informing employees of the new requirements and tracking compliance.

The Veterans Affairs Department, however, earned an "F" for its spotty record implementing the law. "They have named an official, so they get 10 points for that," the report card stated. "That is apparently all they have done...There is no website, apparently no plan or compliance report."

Not an overnight process

The center graded agencies on how they are implementing the actual provisions of the law as well as other supporting activities they've undertaken that bolster the "spirit of the Act," according to the center's website.

Annetta Cheek, the center's chair, told In Depth with Francis Rose she thinks agencies are taking the law's requirements seriously, despite some of the low scores.

"We all know that it's not going to be a matter of getting all this done overnight," Cheek said. "It's a process — the change in the way the government thinks about communication. So we don't expect anybody to be perfect at this point. We just hope that next year people get better grades."

Plain language is essential to an agency's mission, Cheek said.

"The government's in the business of telling people what to do," she said. "And if you tell people what to do in a way they can't understand, how can you expect them to do it?"

Advocates see cost-savings in plain writing

However, communicating more clearly doesn't only benefit the public, she added.

"In this day when we we are seeing restricted resources for government — and it's not going to get better soon — It amazes me that people in the government do not jump on the plain language bandwagon," Cheek said. "Because they can save a lot of time and money."

This year's report focused on how agencies complied with the basic tenets of the new law. But next year's report will actually review and score agency communications.

One thing is clear — agencies at all levels have their work cut out for them.

"It's not easy to write simply," Cheek said, "particularly when you've written the other way for years and years."

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