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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.