Despite order, agencies' language not that plain

Despite order, agencies' language not that plain

It's been almost a year since President Clinton ordered federal employees to start writing official documents in plain English, but a glance at recently published documents shows that old habits die hard.

In a June 1, 1998 memo, President Clinton directed the heads of executive departments and agencies to begin using plain language in new documents by Oct. 1, 1998. Rule makers were given a few extra months to prepare for the switch; new regulations published in the Federal Register were required to be in plain language by Jan. 1, 1999.

Vice President Al Gore's Plain Language Action Network (PLAN) suggests that federal documents use common, everyday words instead of legalistic or bureaucratic terms. Sentences, they say, should average 15 to 20 words and never be longer than 40 words. But these guidelines haven't always been followed.

In March, for example, the Food and Drug Administration won a plain language award from Gore's office for its efforts to make drug companies write labels in plain English. Ironically, though, the FDA regulation announcing the new requirement, published in the March 17 Federal Register, was written in language that was less than straightforward. An excerpt:

"By facilitating product comparisons, easier-to-read labeling will reduce those suboptimal purchases that result from inappropriate price-quality relationships and competitive inefficiencies."

Likewise, the following 70-word sentence, from a proposed rule the Environmental Protection Agency issued on February 12, isn't exactly conversational English:

"The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes to promulgate a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) containing emission limits and work practice requirements that represent reasonably available control technology, along with related monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements, for particulate matter air pollution emitted from an elemental phosphorous facility owned and operated by FMC Corporation and located within the exterior boundaries of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho (FMC or FMC facility)."

The April 7 Federal Register contained a proposed Office of Personnel Management regulation that discussed records "evidencing how the employee was reached for release from the competitive level." If plain English advocates have their way, in the future OPM will simply write about records "showing why the employee was laid off."

Annetta Cheek, a plain English guru at PLAN, said every federal document should be written for its intended reader. The reader "should be able to understand it on the first try, and not have to work at it," she said. The Federal Register, she notes, often is read by owners of small businesses who, unlike large corporations, don't have attorneys to translate legalese.

The excuse that you have to use technical language when writing official rules and regulations doesn't fly, Cheek said. Officials at the Federal Register aren't the problem-they support the use of plain English. In fact, the Register's most recent document drafting handbook uses the plain language format in an attempt to demonstrate that the use of simple, straightforward language is in.

Most agencies don't have a formal structure for ensuring that plain language is used, Cheek said. And some have yet to comply with the President's order that they appoint a plain English director.

PLAN is trying to help feds who write documents avoid relying on legalese. John Strylowski, a senior regulatory analyst at the Interior Department, moonlights as a plain language instructor for the Plain English Network, PLAN's steering committee. Strylowski has conducted about 50 plain English training classes for federal employees since the plain language memo was issued.

"Everywhere I go, people are almost universally enthusiastic [about] this," he said. But, much work remains to be done. "A lot of agencies are taking the first steps toward writing plain English regs," he said. "You take baby steps at first."

Cheek said top Interior officials support plain language efforts. The Department of Transportation, too, has made a concerted effort to change its ways. In fact, in December, DOT proposed a regulation using a new easy-to-read format that includes such features as bulletted text and horizontal lines in tables.

PLAN has made more progress with publications intended for the general public than it has with Federal Register documents, Cheek said. Regulation writers, she said, "have a history of writing bureaucratically and it's hard to get away from."