Analysis: The High Cost of Gobbledygook

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Do you experience a creeping sense of dread when a letter arrives in the mail from a government agency or before you sign an official government form? Do you find yourself asking, "What does this mean?" or "What happens if I'm mistaken?"

You are not alone. Confusing language is frustrating. But beyond our frustration are real consequences if we misunderstand government documents and regulations. Confusing language leads to mistakes that have dramatic consequences for our health, safety and financial security.  Think of the ramifications of failing to understand changes in our mortgages, or being confused by Medicare prescription drug information, or not having enough income taxes withheld from our paycheck.

Confusing government language also places a tremendous financial burden on individuals, businesses and taxpayers.  When we don’t understand the letter we got explaining that our interest rates are going up or telling us what our new health care plan covers, we pick up the phone and call the help center. It takes labor, money and time to fix problems created when people are confused.

Busy call centers are just one hidden cost of confusing language. The National Small Business Association has estimated that businesses with fewer than 20 employees pay an extra $7,600 per employee annually to comply with confusing regulations.

There’s a lot of disagreement in Washington about the scope of government – whether certain regulations or even whole agencies should even exist.  But regardless of where you fall on the partisan spectrum, I think we can all agree that if a government regulation, rule, form or document exists, it should be written in language that can be understood by the intended audience.

Fortunately, there’s a movement building among good government groups and concerned Americans to reform the way the government communicates with American citizens.  Together, we’ve championed two proposals that would save taxpayers billions of dollars and instill more confidence in government.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act, legislation I wrote that requires federal agencies to write public documents in easy-to-understand language.

This week, the Center for Plain Language released its second “Plain Writing Report Card," grading federal agencies on their efforts to implement the requirements of the Plain Writing Act. The report card predictably identified a reluctance by federal agencies to change ingrained habits.  Several agencies are lagging far behind the requirements of the law. But progress is being made. 

The Center also just opened nominations for its 2014 ClearMark Awards, applauding examples of plain writing at its best.  (The Center also awards the WonderMark Award, a sort of “Razzie” award designed to shame the worst of the worst.)

The next frontier for reform is the Plain Regulations Act, legislation that would expand plain writing requirements to federal rules and regulations. Federal regulations are often the worst violators of plain writing best practices. We’re working to build momentum behind this common-sense proposal and remain hopeful about the possibility of passing this bill into law.

You deserve to receive information from federal agencies in language you can understand. Join the plain language movement today, and insist on clearer communication tomorrow.

Click here to view the 2013 Plain Writing Report Card. 

Bruce Braley represents the First Congressional District of Iowa.

(Image via Mmaxer/Shutterstock.com)

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