DHS & HHS noted for language use

Monday - 5/3/2010, 10:50am EDT

Annetta Cheek, Chair, Center for Plain Language

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

"Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?"

That might have been a perfectly reasonable question to ask people entering the United States in the past, but since it's still included on CBP Form I-94 (last updated 05/08) it has helped land the Department of Homeland Security with the dubious distinction of the winner of the Wondermark Award for the worst and most unclear communication.

"This form," notes the Center for Plain Language, "which is used by those entering or re-entering the U.S., is filled with language that is confusing, arcane and offensive. The form has a challenging layout making it difficult to complete. The questions are condescending, the content is unrealistic, and the tone is bureaucratic. It is a particularly noteworthy nomination because of its high-volume use and the fact that it presents a first impression of our nation to visitors."

The ClearMark and WonderMark Awards for Best and Worst Language Use in Business, Government and Nonprofits were presented last week.

Dr. Annetta Cheek, chair of the center's board of directors, told Federal News Radio the other side of the Plain Language coin is healthfinder.gov/prevention for its clarity of navigation and helpfulness of information provided.

The secret to the website's success, said Cheek, was the same as DHS's reason for failure: the amount of time invested in the effort. Health and Human Services, said Cheek, "did a lot of testing with users before they put up that site so they were confident that they were getting the right kind of information with the right wording in the right order."

The kind of carelessness found in the DHS document is all too common across the federal government, said Cheek.

Feds are often a little pressured for time, they have a lot to do and the easiest way to do a new whatever, form or report or letter, is to drag out an old one, make the minimal changes and send it on out. I think that happens way too often and they end up with material that is not very helpful and ends up costing them more time because people have to get back to them and say "what did you mean by this? What am I really supposed to do?"

While the administration been talking about plain language, and it's clear they want improvement, said Cheek, "I think there needs to be a little more focused attention on it and a definition because, as you know, if you tell somebody to do something and you don't tell them really what that is, they might try but you're probably not going to get what you want."

In the meantime, for more information on how to submit a 2011 ClearMark or WonderMark nomination, go to http://www.centerforplainlanguage.org.