New Plain Language Champs: Social Security, Homeland Security and SEC

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Federal wordsmiths are demonstrating progress in their venerable bid to embrace plain English over bureaucratese, according to the Center for Plain Language 2014 report card released on Tuesday.

In the third ratings since enactment of the 2010 Plain Language Act, 16 out of 22 departments improved over last year’s grades, while overall compliance with the act increased.

The best writing came from the Homeland Security Department, the Social Security Administration, and the agency credited with pioneering clear agency writing, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the study found.

The three agencies that failed to comply with the act in 2014, and hence received F’s, were the Education, Interior, and State departments.

The nonprofit center evaluates agency-selected documents—10 per agency, of which the judges pick three—to assign scores based on three main areas: compliance with the requirements of the Plain Writing Act, plain writing itself and information design.

“As a former college professor who voted for the Plain Language Act, I’m encouraged that some agencies are taking the law seriously,” said Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, who joined with the center’s academics to release the report card. “It’s one thing to pass a law, another to implement it properly.”

The 2010 law marks “the third time the government has attempted this, and this time is the most successful,” said Annetta Cheek, a former Federal Aviation Administration employee who now heads the Center for Plain Language’ government affairs committee. The reason progress in the past was slow is that “federal employees just don’t write that well, and it is hard to write plainly—writing bureaucratically is much easier,” she said.

During her 25 years in government, Cheek found that plain writing was “counter to the culture of government.” A writer would be handed a report from the last year as a model “that was just plain awful,” she said, and then be told to update the numbers. “Some people think if it’s not legalistic and bureaucratic, it’s not official,” Cheek said.

When it comes to graphic design and creative use of type and white space, she added, “the government is just not good at forms or visual presentation—it lacks those skill sets. It will be some time before government gets to the level of the private sector.”

The center did not rank all the agencies, but it singled out Homeland Security for having “shot from ‘detention’ to the ‘Dean’s list,’ with the highest writing score in 2014 overall.” And it praised Social Security for topping the rankings two years in a row.

Flaws in the writing samples, according to the center’s white paper accompanying the report card, include subject/verb agreement errors, incorrect verb forms, number agreement mismatches and word confusions (such as affect/effect, amount/number, fewer/less, to/too, or a/an substitutions). Other no-no’s that make text less readable are complex words, “would, could, should or other auxiliary verbs, noun clusters, needless words, passive verbs, hidden verbs and narrative lists rather than bulleted ones.”

The center hopes that continued exposure of the problem will accelerate progress. “The public review process works,” said Kath Straub, a Center for Plain Language board member who led the analysis. “With the help of the press, we have nudged federal departments to demonstrate their commitment to plain language.”

Agencies can continue to improve by rewarding employees who create clear communications and by providing greater training, the report said. In the future, the center plans to select each agency’s documents rather than inviting submissions, which allows agencies to “cherry-pick,” Cheek said.

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