OMB releases preliminary guidance on plain writing

The Office of Management and Budget published preliminary guidelines on Monday to help federal agencies meet the requirements set out in the 2010 Plain Writing Act.

The law requires OMB to produce a more thorough set of guidelines by April 13, 2011, but Monday's memorandum provides a formal definition of plain language, outlines steps agencies must take to comply with legislation and lists resources for further guidance.

OMB defines plain writing as "concise, simple, meaningful and well-organized," and free of jargon. Public documents and websites that provide information on, or are necessary to obtain, federal services must be written in plain language. Content that explains to the public how to comply with federal requirements also must meet the terms of the law.

According to the legislation, agencies must designate an official to oversee implementation of plain writing by July 13, 2011. OMB advises agencies to select someone "sufficiently senior" in rank who has "cross-cutting agency responsibilities" and is involved with communications.

The guidance also reminds agencies that implementation reports are due on July 13, 2011. Officials overseeing implementation will be required to brief OMB and the White House on the status of the process at each agency.

The Plain Language Action and Information Network, an interagency working group, will develop final rules by April 2011. In the interim, agencies must follow the network's current guidelines.

Kathryn Catania, co-chairwoman for PLAIN, said her organization is excited to be an integral part of implementing the law. "We're thrilled because we have all been plain language supporters for a very long time," she said. "PLAIN is here to help any federal agency develop a plain language program." The organization offers free training and tips for agencies developing a plain language program.

Plain writing is an effective means of cutting costs and "an essential part of open government," OMB's memo noted. "Transparency, public participation and collaboration cannot easily occur without plain writing."

Agencies must designate a section on their websites to communicate how they are complying with the plain language law and invite feedback from the public.

President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law on Oct. 13.

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