A bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in April aims to help the millions of Americans who struggle to understand tax forms and other correspondence from the federal government.
The goal of the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008 (PLGCA), which passed the House on a 376-to-1 vote, is to "improve the federal government's effectiveness and accountability to the public by promoting clear communication that the public can understand and use."
Reforming the way our federal government communicates to citizens is easier said than done, however, and even supporters of plain-language reform expressed some skepticism about the legislation. How do you change the culture of a bureaucratic behemoth fed by tradition and legalese?
U.S. Representative Bruce Braley, whose district encompasses the Iowa Quad Cities, sponsored the bill. He spoke about the plan in a speech in the House, saying: "Plain, straightforward language makes it easy for taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing and what services it's offering."
Major plain-language movements within the federal government started in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order requiring federal agency officials to strive to make sure each "regulation is written in plain English and understandable to those who must comply with it."
President Bill Clinton also made efforts to clean up government language with a memorandum in 1998 mandating that federal agencies use plain language in their documents. Vice President Al Gore worked closely with plain language and introduced the No Gobbledygook Awards, a ceremony honoring those who transformed bureaucratic language into clear English.
Braley's bill echoes Clinton's memorandum. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill has a price tag of approximately $2 million per year because of paper costs, training programs, and revamped Web sites. The Senate's equivalent legislation, S. 2291, has been introduced.
But Braley's plan falters where Carter's and Clinton's did: All three fail to punish agencies that make insufficient attempts at plain-language writing; without meaningful accountability or incentive, federal workers may be slow to change.
Annetta Cheek, chair of the Center for Plain Language (which describes itself as a "corporation established to propel the belief that government and business communication can be clear and understandable"), said she is cautiously optimistic about the bill. "It'll be a tough fight," she said. "Those of us that are plain-language advocates understand that passing a bill does not mean that the government's instantly going to start writing in plain language. It's just a step along the way."
Cheek worked in the federal government for 25 years, including with Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, an office that attempted to spread plain language throughout the federal government. She also helped found the Plain Language Action & Information Network, a group of federal employees who advocate for plain language in government.
Cheek said she supports Braley's bill but also finds flaws. "No bill is ideal," she said. She noted that although although agencies would be required to make reports to Congress periodically, there would be no repercussions for those that fail to follow the bill's mandate.
Within the federal government, some agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have already created plain-language initiatives. The NIH, for example, hands out awards for the best documents written in plain language, and offers online programs for better writing. The FAA holds plain-language conferences.
Ann Brewer is the coordinator for Executive Secretariat, a branch of the NIH that monitors and edits correspondence from the agency's director, implementing plain language whenever possible. She helps with the NIH plain-language awards ceremony.
Award incentives such as these, Brewer said, push people to use plain language. "It's competitive," she said. Snubbed writers have cried in her office, she added.
NIH's success boils down to a simple, incentive-based plan, Brewer said: "I think it's successful because of the awards program."
But she still finds room for improvement in NIH. Brewer is hoping for plain-language writing requirements for NIH employees; for now, employees are simply encouraged to take classes on plain writing.
NIH's online training program, which can be found at (http://plainlanguage.nih.gov) has drawn global interest. Brewer noted that people from Quebec, Toronto, and Alberta have contacted her to get more information about implementing plain language in their provincial governments, and the State Department is implementing the program for users abroad.
Other agencies are having more trouble. "I think we've got a stronger program than most federal agencies," Brewer said. "It looks like they [some other agencies] are kind of struggling with it [plain language]."
The state of Washington has a mandate similar to the federal orders of Carter and Clinton. An executive order requiring state government offices to "use simple and clear language when communicating with citizens and businesses" was issued by Governor Christine Gregoire in 2005.
The Washington Government Management Accountability & Performance (GMAP) office heads up the state's "Plain Talk" program. Kris Rietmann, communications manager of GMAP, said that each agency in the government decides whether to make plain-writing classes mandatory. GMAP offers classes on document and online writing.
The Washington Agency of Revenue reported an increase in tax revenue of almost $3 million from 2005 to 2007, which Rietmann attributed to clearer instructions from the state.
Rietmann also said that plain language doesn't preclude having lengthy, legally specific language to close loopholes and follow procedure. If legalese is necessary, she said, writers ought to bullet main points of the document and place their main concerns at the top of the page. Each agency under the GMAP umbrella works closely with legal departments to close loopholes while still maintaining efficient language.
The state of Arizona has inquired about Washington's program, but no other states have.
Still, Cheek said she's hopeful that plain language is gaining a foothold in government.
"We understand that this is a long process," Cheek said, "We haven't come this far to let it lapse because of we're not paying attention to what the government's doing."
Plain Language in Action
Plainlanguage.gov lists several examples of how useful plain language can be. Consider the following instructions from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), before instituting plain language:
"After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Education Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops."
And after an NMFS employee edited the instructions with clear writing:
"After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing each fishing season."