FAA embraces plain language

klunney@govexec.com

Pilots and mechanics should better understand Federal Aviation Administration regulations soon, thanks to final rules on using plain language in FAA documents published Monday in the Federal Register.

Annetta Cheek, the plain language coordinator for the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, said she and her team have worked extensively this summer to write clear and simple directives for using and repairing air equipment. Those instructions will be published in the new plain language format in the Federal Register next week, Cheek said.

The FAA received a low score from commercial pilots in a customer satisfaction survey conducted by the University of Michigan Business School last December. Pilots complained that the agency's regulations were too difficult to understand. In response to the criticism, the agency released draft regulations in the Federal Register that pledged to use a simple writing style in future documents to make compliance easier.

The final rules issued Monday take effect September 20.

The agency said from now on regulations will have section headings in the form of questions to help direct readers to specific material and will contain more personal pronouns to focus readers' attention.

Cheek discussed the virtues of writing in plain language and disputed the view that clarity comes at the expense of precision. "There is no conflict between clarity and precision. Clear documents, if they are good plain language translations, are often more precise," she said.

Documents that are easy to read and understand can also save the government money, Cheek said. She cited a 1998 Court of Appeals case (Maria Walters and others v. United States Immigration and Naturalization) where the court ruled against the INS, finding that certain government forms were so difficult to understand that they violated an individual's right to be given notice of possible legal actions against them.

"Good language can save money, and bad language can cost money," said Cheek.

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