Speaking plain English still a challenge for some agencies

Wednesday - 11/20/2013, 4:39am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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When it comes to replacing agencies' use of government jargon in their public-facing communications with the language spoken by normal humans, there's been progress at some agencies, setbacks at others, and a general lack of governmentwide leadership on the issue, according to an advocacy group's most recent scorecard.

Plain language writing is no longer just a suggestion for departments. Under the Plain Writing Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, every federal entity is supposed to use plain language in all written and online documents that are meant for public consumption. Two years later, the results are mixed, according to the second annual assessment by the Center for Plain Language.

Five cabinet departments improved their scores on complying with the letter of the law from a year ago, while four others lost ground.

"Some agencies have embraced the Plain Writing Act, but some haven't. And until every agency gets an 'A' grade, we're going to keep holding their feet to the fire," said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), the original sponsor of the law.

The volunteer group's scorecard grades agencies on how many boxes they've checked to comply with the law's mandates, but it also tries to assess the quality of their writing by looking at a small sample of agency documents. The group lets each agency submit what they think are their best examples.

The center assessed those writings based on criteria such as average sentence length, whether the author wrote in passive voice and the overall "cohesion" of the document in question.

The grades are in

The Social Security Administration was a standout in the 2013 report, earning an "A" grade in both categories. Last year, it had a "C" for compliance. The departments of Agriculture, Transportation and Commerce and the Small Business Administration also earned "A" grades for complying with the law.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Department of Homeland Security went from a "D" last year to an "F" this year.

Dr. Anetta Cheek, the chairwoman of the board of the Center for Plain Language, said there are isolated examples of DHS components that are taking the law seriously. But she said the department as a whole is a plain language "wasteland."

And while some agencies have taken it upon themselves to make sure their public documents are actually comprehensible by the public, Cheek said there's a serious lack of governmentwide attention to the issue.

The Office of Management and Budget issued guidance on the matter in 2011, shortly after Congress passed the law. But since then, OMB has been essentially silent on plain language.

"They have not been showing any leadership since then," she said. "And even though the law requires agencies to have a high-level official who theoretically can control the entire organization to be in charge of this, in reality, it's been a case where Joe's passing by the door when they needed to appoint someone, so they said, 'Hey, let's use Joe,' whether Joe cares about it or not. There are too many of those cases, but there are a handful of people who truly are dedicated to it."

Cheek said there have been some bright spots over the past year toward training federal employees who write for public audiences to write in plain language. USDA now offers an online course on plain language to all of its employees, and encourages them to take it.

Working group offers training

There's also an ad-hoc Federal Plain Language Group that offers half-day training sessions to feds who want to learn the fundamentals of plain writing, staffed by various agency officials who have other duties during their regular jobs. The group has about 20 trainers, Cheek said.

"But they can't keep up with the demands, so there's certainly an interest in it, which to me is key," she said. "Writing clearly is difficult, and if you've been writing the usual bureaucratic stuff for years, it's not so easy to start suddenly writing with your audience in mind."

Cheek, who served in the federal government for 25 years, said the biggest impediment to plain writing in the government is a cultural one. She admits that explaining the inner workings of the federal government in plain language is extremely difficult.

Also, if a document isn't written in inscrutable bureaucrat-speak, there's a tendency among seasoned federal writers to think it doesn't look official enough to appear on an agency's letterhead or its website.

"We have to get writers to start thinking about their readers," she said. "They aren't thinking about their end audience, they're thinking about their intermediate audiences: their boss, and of course the agency attorneys. The needs and the skill level of the end user is not something that your typical government writer thinks about. That's one of the key things that needs to change."