Say What? Agencies Continue to Wrestle with Plain Writing


In a sign of progress in the government’s effort to cease communicating in bureaucratese, two major agencies tied for top grades in the federal plain language report card released on Tuesday by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language.
The Social Security Administration dominated for the second year running, tying for top grades with the Homeland Security Department in compliance with the 2010 Plain Language Act and writing and information design.

For the first time in four years of report cards, all 15 Cabinet departments participated, along with eight other agencies, and none of the agencies received F’s, the center said. Thirteen agencies improved, while five slipped in their grades. The lowest ranking, with C’s and one B-, were the State and Transportation departments, the center reported, while the Education Department rose most dramatically, from D to A- for compliance and up from a C to an A- for writing and information design.

“Clear communication from government is critical because things are confusing enough for the average person as it is, and the last thing we need is confusing language,” Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, a former college professor, told reporters. “The folks in agencies are there to serve the public, and one way to do that is to make sure they communicate properly so the public understands what they do and can ask questions to get answers.”

Loebsack said he would like to bring some federal employees to an Iowa coffee klatch so they could “find out how the average person speaks.”

At the center, “We think we have really made an impact on the way agencies write, and have seen consistent improvement each year,” said Annetta Cheek, a former Federal Aviation Administration employee who heads the center’s government affairs committee. “A lot of editorial people in agencies appreciate the support of getting an outsider to tell management the same things they’ve been telling them,” she said. “Now, instead of ignoring them, their managers come to them for advice.”

Traditionally, agency wordsmiths have “written for the boss or their boss’ boss or attorneys,” Cheek added, putting some of the blame on Congress for passing legislation with “impenetrable language. It’s a culture that paid very little attention to the intended audience,” she said, citing greater progress in the use of language but less on design and organization. “The Plain Language Act didn’t create a revolution—and change won’t happen overnight.”

To participate in the report card, agencies were allowed to pick their best submissions from public notices, though they all included material from their website’s “About Us” entry, said Chip Crane, a center board member who led the analysis. “The culture is slowly changing, and we hope the momentum continues,” Crane added, suggesting that in the future the center might evaluate agencies’ most heavily used forms.

(Image via safriibrahim/

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