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Agencies Turn Government Speak Into Plain Language

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If you’re looking for simple, straightforward information, the federal government isn’t likely the first place you would turn. But some agencies are working to change that.

Two prime examples are the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, honored Tuesday at the fifth annual Center for Plain Language national ClearMark Awards for producing concise and easy-to-understand documents.

For years, government agencies have been the target of complaints and even public outcry over complicated and complex consumer information. Started by government employees and plain language consultants who are tired of overcomplicated and confusing information from government, the Center for Plain Language encourages agencies to produce simple, clear and concise information.

Capturing the center's highest award—the Grand ClearMark Award—was CFPB's Loan Estimate Form, aimed at helping consumers who are shopping for home loans. CFPB changed two long, complicated forms into one that is shorter and simpler.

"When a government agency such as CFPB turns two long, head-scratching forms into one that’s shorter, clearer and easier to use, the Center for Plain Language rejoices," said Annetta L. Cheek, chairwoman of the center’s board of directors. "The testing that went into this redesign—both before and after—is impressive, and shows in the results."

The judges said consumers can understand the form more easily and lenders are eager to use it.  That’s a big win for a public agency—and the public.

Also honored at the ClearMark Awards ceremony in Washington was the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s Don't Mess With Mercury website. The campaign targets middle school students and teachers, offering information and tools to understand the dangers of mercury spills from items such as thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs and actions they can take to ensure their safety. The judges said the information is interactive, engages the reader, and makes learning easier, noting that the language, graphics and organization make the site accessible for everyone.

In contrast to the ClearMark Awards, the center also gives out WonderMark Awards, as in "I wonder what they were thinking when they wrote this confusing document?" This year’s top award for the most confusing and complex language was given to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's consent decree.

The Transportation Department agency was created to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. The consent decree is provided to owners of trucking and bus companies to help them comply with safety regulations.

The judges said 100 percent of the owners complained about the document, but FMCSA has not improved it. The decree was created "of the lawyers, by the lawyers, for the lawyers," the judges said, adding that it appeared no thought was given to the audience using the document. 

The following federal agencies were honored with ClearMark Awards of Distinction (a plain language role model):

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center (Significant Climate Anomalies and Events Map) 
  • CFPB (How to Find the Best Credit Card for You)
  • The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (court rules revision)
  • CFPB (What is the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act?)
  • The Veterans Health Administration (Donate My Data brochure)
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (Take Care of Your Feet for a Lifetime)
  • Texas Department of Information Resources (Texas.gov)
  • Social Security Administration (SSA website redesign)

For information on the 2015 ClearMark or WonderMark nominations, go to http://www.centerforplainlanguage.org/awards

Sheri L. Singer is principal at the public relations firm Singer Communications in Washington.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry instead of it's parent agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

> (Image via Ufuk ZIVANA/Shutterstock.com)

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