Outside Job

Cut the bureaucratic blah-de-blah.

Federal agencies have gotten better over the years at communicating clearly with the public. A quiet movement has bubbled along in pockets throughout the government for more than a decade, with advocates of plain language slowly making headway in convincing their bosses that it's more important to help people understand the government than to satisfy the general counsel offices and other protectors of bureaucratese.

The application for federal student aid, for example, is still a bit clunky but is much easier to complete now than it was in the 1990s. The Social Security Administration's benefits application process also is much smoother. A key factor in the government's improved communications skills has been the shift from paper to online. Plain language advocates took advantage of the move to the Internet by arguing that attention spans are much shorter when people are looking at a computer screen rather than at a printed booklet.

Of course, there's still much work to be done. Internal documents are written in laborious jargon, as are many regulations and Federal Register announcements. Annetta Cheek was one of the plain language advocates toiling in the bureaucracy until recently, when she left government to devote her attention to the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit that pushes better communication both in government and in business. Cheek is helping push a bill through Congress that would call on federal agencies to write in plain language. In 2007, companion bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate. This year Cheek will be advocating for more and more lawmakers to get on board the bandwagon. It's a tough sell, in part, because it's such a mom-and-apple-pie idea. Who is against plain language? So why pass a law requiring it?

But one previous lawmaker already is on board-former California Republican congressman Christopher Cox, who is now the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Last year, he pushed businesses to write disclosures required by federal law in language that the average investor could understand. For example, major public companies must publish documents each year justifying their executives' compensation plans. The SEC is encouraging companies to simplify the explanations.

Bureaucratese is a problem in the private sector as much as in government. Indeed, Cox's agency is asking investors about the readability of all disclosure documents they come across. The agency will use the findings of their survey to help businesses write more clearly.

Why does this matter? Cox offered one explanation in a speech to the Center for Plain Language last fall. "None of us likes to have our time wasted," he said. "And that's what verbose and hypertechnical writing does-it wastes our time. . . . As the legal jargon spreads across investor communications like weeds in a garden, increasingly the investors just stop reading it."

That's true of everyone, not just investors. If you write a government document, remember that if it's indecipherable, you're wasting your time. No one will read it.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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