Making It Plain

Agencies could take their cue from the IRS’ project to clean up legalese in taxpayer letters.

Agencies could take their cue from the IRS' project to clean up legalese in taxpayer letters.

Here's a funny story relayed by Internal Revenue Service call center agents: Taxpayers sometimes call in to complain they have mistakenly received letters intended for someone named "Levy."

The anecdote loses its humor when you consider that a "notice to levy" is an official warning that the government may garnishee your wages or seize your bank assets. Even less funny: A full quarter of the people who received IRS letters in 2007 demanding proof of eligibility for a low-income tax credit didn't realize they were being audited. "It's really astonishing," says Nina Olson, the IRS' national taxpayer advocate. "It just shows the real impact of poor communication."

The good news is stories like these have prompted the tax agency to radically overhaul its automated correspondence system, which every year sends more than 200 million notices to taxpayers. The idea is that simplified, user-friendly letters written in plain English will speed the resolution of disputes and reduce the need for taxpayers to call in for clarification. Officials elsewhere in government would be wise to pay attention. The IRS simplification project is a good case study for the "plain writing" transformation all agencies will be required to implement this year under the little-known 2010 Plain Writing Act.

Communicating effectively means refocusing operations to consider the needs of the reader, not the bureaucracy. It means thinking about how information is designed and processed, as well as how it's written. It requires comprehension testing to ensure reforms are working-and committed leadership from senior officials.

Letter of the Law

Under the bill signed by President Obama late last year, every federal agency by October 2011 must communicate to the public in "clear, concise, well-organized" language. The law does not cover regulations, but it does apply to all other documents that describe government requirements or services-such as tax forms, letters, benefits applications, and Medicare and Social Security handbooks.

At a time when most federal agencies face budget cuts, the White House is emphasizing the potential cost savings from translating legalese to lucid prose. There's hard evidence that clear communications can improve compliance with rules and reduce errors, thereby lowering enforcement and administrative costs, said Cass Sunstein, the administration's regulatory chief, in a guidance memo to agency heads.

And there's an ethical imperative, too.

"You can't really have a democracy if the public doesn't understand what the government is doing," says Annetta Cheek, a retired Interior Department regulations writer who co-founded a group of federal employees evangelizing plain language since the mid-1990s. "Transparency fails if information is out there but no one understands it."

IRS Redesign

Several years ago, then-IRS Communications Director Jodi Patterson received a letter from the agency about her own tax return. "I had to read through it five times before I understood what it is they were saying," she says. It's fitting, then, that IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman in 2008 tapped Patterson to establish the Office of Taxpayer Correspondence and streamline the agency's convoluted automated correspondence system. Patterson hired New York design firm Siegel and Gale (the simplification gurus who in 1979 helped design the 1040EZ form) to diagnose the problem: Many IRS letters were largely redundant and often failed to clearly state their purpose, according to Siegel and Gale's investigation.

More than two years into the project, the IRS has redesigned 85 of the most commonly sent letters. New notices are based on nine prototypes, each of which has been tested for user-friendliness by a sample of 400 representative taxpayers. Among the hundreds of changes, big and small: The word "levy" now appears with a definition, "seize."

In April, the IRS simplification project took home the grand prize at the annual ClearMark awards from the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit whose motto is "Plain language is a civil right."

'Icing on the Cake'

Among the lessons that other federal agencies should learn from the IRS simplification project, according to one of its directors, is that achieving the Plain Writing Act's goal of "communication the public can understand and use" may mean that plain writing alone is no cure for confusion.

"Plain language writing is really the icing on the cake," says Irene Etzkorn, who is Siegel and Gale's executive director for simplification. "Long before we get to the sentence and word level, we spend a lot of time on the structural aspects."

Happily, the Obama administration appears to understand that fulfilling the Plain Writing Act's purpose requires more than a plain writing gloss on convoluted information systems. Sunstein's guidance directs agencies to follow Federal Plain Language Guidelines developed by the group Cheek helped found, which stress organization, design and usability testing as integral to a plain language transformation. The White House can go further and explicitly make an outcome such as "comprehensibility" the standard by which Plain Writing Act implementation will be judged-rather than merely measuring inputs such as plans and annual reports to Congress.

Big Push

Another lesson from the IRS case study is the importance of support at the highest agency levels. The IRS' Patterson and Olson both stress Shulman's support of the initiative as key to penetrating the bureaucratic inertia that threatens any transformational initiative.

"I don't know that we would have been able to really push this through if we hadn't had support from the commissioner on down," Patterson says.

All agencies were required to designate a senior official in charge of plain writing training and execution by mid-summer. The director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should consider assuming personal responsibility as its plain writing czar, and ensuring the new office practices what it regulates. That would send a powerful message to other agency heads that clear and effective communication to the public is not a mere byproduct of good government-it is good government.

Gadi Dechter is associate director of government reform at the Washington think tank Center for American Progress.

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