The anecdote loses its humor when you consider that a "notice to levy" is an official warning that the government may garnishee your wages or seize your bank assets.
Even less funny: A full quarter of the people who received IRS letters in 2007 demanding proof of eligibility for a low-income tax credit didn't realize they were being audited.
"It's really astonishing," says Nina Olson, the IRS' national taxpayer advocate. "It just shows the real impact of poor communication."
The good news is that stories like these have prompted the tax agency to radically overhaul its automated correspondence system, which every year sends more than 200 million notices to taxpayers. The idea is that simplified, user-friendly letters written in plain English will speed the resolution of disputes and reduce the need for taxpayers to call in clarification. Each such call costs the agency $25, and it received 110 million calls in 2010 alone.
Officials elsewhere in government would be wise to pay attention. The IRS simplification project, now in its third year, is a good case study for the "plain writing" transformation all agencies will be required to implement this year under the little-known 2010 Plain Writing Act.
Ironically, the key lesson from the IRS initiative is that plain writing alone won't cure the government's gobbledygook problem. Communicating effectively means refocusing operations to consider the needs of the reader, not the bureaucracy. It means thinking about how information is designed and processed, as well as how it's written. It requires comprehension testing to ensure reforms are working -- and committed leadership from senior officials.
The Plain Writing Act
Under the bill signed by President Obama late last year, every federal agency by October 2011 must communicate to the public in "clear, concise, well-organized" language. The law does not cover regulations, but it does apply to all other documents that describe government requirements or services -- such as tax forms, letters, benefits applications, and Medicare and Social Security handbooks.
At a time when most federal agencies face budget cuts, the White House is emphasizing the potential cost savings from translating legalese to lucid prose. There's hard evidence that clear communications can improve compliance with rules and reduce errors, thereby lowering enforcement and administrative costs, said Cass Sunstein, the administration's regulatory chief, in a guidance memo to agency heads last month.
And there's an ethical imperative, too.
"You can't really have a democracy if the public doesn't understand what the government is doing," says Annetta Cheek, a retired Interior Department regulations writer who co-founded a group of federal employees evangelizing plain language since the mid-1990s. "Transparency fails if information is out there but no one understands it."
IRS case study
Several years ago, then-IRS Communications Director Jodi Patterson received a letter from the agency about her own tax return. "I had to read through it five times before I understood what it is they were saying," she says.
It's fitting, then, that IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman in 2008 tapped Patterson to establish the Office of Taxpayer Correspondence and streamline the agency's convoluted automated correspondence system.
Patterson hired New York design firm Siegel and Gale (the simplification gurus who in 1979 helped design the 1040EZ form) to diagnose the problem: Dozens of IRS letters were largely redundant, they used an "excessively authoritative" tone and often failed to clearly state their purpose, according to Siegel and Gale's investigation. The cumulative effect was to make taxpayers feel frustrated and helpless.
More than two years into the project, the IRS has redesigned 85 of the most commonly sent letters, accounting for 50 percent of the correspondence volume. New notices are based on nine prototypes, each of which has been tested for user-friendliness by a sample of 400 representative taxpayers. Among the hundreds of changes, big and small: The word "levy" now appears with a definition, "seize."
In April, the IRS simplification project took home the grand prize at the annual ClearMark awards from the Center for Plain Language, a Silver Spring, Md., nonprofit whose motto is "Plain language is a civil right."
Of course, the real test, Patterson acknowledges, is yet to come. May is the agency's busiest letter-sending month, and she hopes to have hard data soon. "The proof will be in the pudding," she says. "Do people pay more frequently and call less?"
Among the lessons other agencies should learn from the IRS simplification project, according to one of its directors, is that achieving the Plain Writing Act's goal of "communication the public can understand and use" may mean that plain writing alone is no cure for confusion.
"Plain language writing is really the icing on the cake," says Irene Etzkorn, who is Siegel and Gale's executive director for simplification. "Long before we get to the sentence and word level, we really spend a lot of time on the structural aspects."
The 'big breakthrough'
The "big breakthrough" on the IRS project, Etzkorn says, was when the consultants figured out that the agency's entire taxpayer correspondence apparatus, with its 120 authors and 44 discrete systems, really boiled down to two messages: Send us more money, and send us more information. From there they discovered they could whittle the content of about 700 letters down to fewer than 40, and developed a "content library" of boilerplate language proven in customized testing to be comprehensible to the average taxpayer.
Happily, the Obama administration appears to understand that fulfilling the Plain Writing Act's purpose requires more than a plain writing gloss on convoluted information systems. Sunstein's guidance directs agencies to follow Federal Plain Language Guidelines developed by the group Cheek helped found, which stress organization, design and usability testing as integral to a plain language transformation.
The White House can go further and explicitly make an outcome such as "comprehensibility" the standard by which Plain Writing Act implementation will be judged -- rather than merely measuring inputs such as plans and annual reports to Congress.
If the average American doesn't understand what the government is saying, the government isn't speaking plainly, however simply written a document may be.
Next target: consumer bureau
Another lesson from the IRS case study is the importance of support at the highest agency levels. The IRS' Patterson and Olson both stress Shulman's support of the initiative as key to penetrating the bureaucratic inertia that threatens any transformational initiative. "I don't know that we would have been able to really push this through if we hadn't had support from the commissioner on down," Patterson says.
An obvious next place to showcase the potential of the Plain Writing Act: The nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, charged by Congress with making sure people comprehend complex financial products like mortgages and credit cards.
By mid-summer, all agencies must designate a senior official in charge of plain writing training and execution. Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, the unofficial acting director of the CFPB, should consider assuming personal responsibility as its plain writing czar, and ensuring the new office practices what it regulates.
That would send a powerful message to other agency heads that clear and effective communication to the public is not a mere byproduct of good government -- it is good government.
Gadi Dechter is associate director of government reform at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank.
This story has been corrected to state that the IRS sends 200 million notices per year, not notices to 200 million taxpayers.