Plain & Simple

Congress is on a crusade to clean up the language in federal documents. But gobbledygook is hard to kill.

"In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this provision for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this provision."

-Justice Department guideline on expense reimbursement

Not sure what "subrogate" means? Help is on the way. Legislation mandating that federal agencies use plain language in public communications is working its way through Congress, giving foes of jargon-laced government legalese cause for cheer.

The Plain Language in Government Communications Act covers benefit and tax forms, letters, publications, notices and instructions sent to the public. Under best practices mandated by the bill, federal document drafters would have to tailor communications to targeted readers, employ personal pronouns, offer examples and use the active voice.

Applying that approach, the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit group working to pass the bill, rewrote the Justice Department rule above to read: "If you already got payments from us and from another source for expenses, you must pay back what we paid you."

Spread governmentwide, such fixes would save agencies, citizens and businesses billions of dollars in time and effort, backers say. The prospect of simplified interaction with the government has won the proposed legislation backing from influential organizations such as AARP and the National Small Business Association.

But anyone hoping the acronym-stuffed, clause-ridden federal guidance that former Vice President Al Gore used to deride as "gobbledygook" will quickly give way to lean prose and declarative sentences should hold the champagne. And agency regulation writers need not rush to reevaluate their style just yet. Gobbledygook may be threatened, but it is far from dead.

Modest Move

One reason is that the House and Senate plain language bills, which differ slightly, exclude most federal communications. They also face White House opposition. Even if the bills make it through the legislative gauntlet, they may not achieve their aims. Campaigns for clear writing have occurred before, with limited and temporary success. Regardless of the laws on the books, only a sustained push by advocates within agencies can overcome a cultural preference for bureaucratic mush.

By design, the plain language legislation is modest. The bill exempts internal communications. And to avoid opposition from agency lawyers, it does not cover federal regulations, even though those are the key concern of business groups backing the legislation. "You have to crawl before you can walk," explains Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, a plain language adherent who introduced the House bill.

In 2006, a broader plain language measure that did cover regulations cleared the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But it never received a floor vote. This year, to avoid tying the hands of regulatory agencies, the Oversight Committee rejected calls by some Republicans to expand the reach of bill.

Despite those limits, the Office of Management and Budget has signaled opposition. "I believe this legislation is unnecessary and may have unintended consequences for federal agencies," Susan Dudley, administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in an April letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine. Dudley said the measure would "duplicate or conflict with existing efforts" to push plain language and could open the door to lawsuits.

"One of the problems is that continually putting out guidance on the same subject area can cause existing policy to become muddled," Dudley says. "The issuance of a one-size-fits-all policy could possibly conflict and invalidate existing work by agencies in this area." Asked if she would urge a veto, Dudley said, "I am still hoping our concerns can be addressed." A spokesman for Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of a key government management subcommittee, said Senate staffers are in ongoing discussions with OMB.

But the letter suggests that should the bill pass this year, OMB, which under the measures would be responsible for overseeing implementation of agency plain language programs, would be unlikely to move enthusiastically to do so.

Haste Makes Verbiage

That's potentially a major hurdle, because plain language advocates acknowledge that no matter what Congress mandates, changing federal practices requires backing from the White House as well as from within agencies.

Though the bill requires agencies to appoint a senior officer to oversee plain language programs, only officials strongly committed to the approach will make it stick, says Thomas Murawski, whose Murawski Group in Colorado Springs, Colo., trains government and corporate workers on communication techniques. Indecipherable communications may seem like the product of ponderous deliberation, but they often result largely from haste, he says, citing experience with 15 Cabinet-level agencies. Facing legal and sometimes political concerns, document drafters prefer to tinker with old guidance rather than writing their own, especially when they are under deadline pressure and unsure of their subject. "They go to the old regulation, the old style, all using the passive voice," he says.

The only antidote to such habits, according to Muraw-ski, is selling managers and then their staffs office by office on the value of clear communication. "It all flows down," he says. "When a new person comes in and sees something that looks and sounds like ordinary English, we have broken the problem. "But you have to have people who double up in the agency as champions to flog the timid and the weak," he adds.

For more than 15 years, the chief flogger for clear government communication has been Annetta Cheek, chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language. Cheek retired from the Federal Aviation Administration last year to advocate for the plain language bill. She and her colleagues lobby lawmakers in part by skewering particularly wordy federal documents, then showing how the language improves under plain language practices.

Confronted with OMB's criticism of the bill, Joseph Kimble, a law professor and Center for Plain Language board member, pointed to OMB's own 70-word definition of an earmark. "Sadly, OMB probably thinks this is a model of plain language," Kimble wrote in an April 29 letter.

During the Clinton administration, Cheek coordinated an assault on bureaucratic language that was launched as part of Gore's reinventing government effort. The group's current push for plain language is a descendent of the Gore effort. He awarded a Gobbledygook Elimination Prize to federal employees who effectively clarified public documents, and President Clinton ordered agencies to use plain language in new documents, including letters, forms and notices.

With top-level backing, the push made modest progress by cheerleading and bullying agencies into clearer communication, participants say. But plain language advocates say that in the absence of high-level advocacy, the effort quickly lost steam during the Bush administration.

"The day after President Bush got elected, my phone stopped ringing for plain language," Murawski says.

Long Way to Go

Today, plain language programs remain in pockets of the government where they have become ingrained in office culture, according to Cheek. The National Institutes of Health, the Veterans Benefits Administration, FAA and the Social Security Administration all have maintained programs. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, another plain language proponent, has urged his agency's employees and the public companies they oversee to simplify public documents. SEC's Plain English Handbook is cited in the legislation making its way through Congress as a model for other agencies.

But language watchers say that in much of the government-particularly the Justice, Treasury and Defense departments-clear writing is in short supply. A Pentagon rule on transmitting secret information, for example, says: "Administrative procedures shall be established by each DoD component for controlling secret information and material originated or received by an activity; distributed or routed to a subelement of such activity; and disposed of by the activity by transfer of custody or destruction."

Even with passage of legislation, critics say it would take years and a new generation of employees to alter a culture that's comfortable churning out such directives.

In her letter to Collins, Dudley pointed to a number of agency regulations and some existing laws, such as the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, that contain provisions urging use of clear language. A new law might complicate agency efforts to comply by tying their hands, Dudley says. But eliminating agency flexibility, Braley argues, "is the point." Citizens, through their representatives, are demanding the agencies take steps to make themselves understood, he says.

"It's pretty clear that agencies aren't going to do anything unless they have to," Cheek says. "You only have to open up something that you get in the mail from the federal government to know more has to be done."

Dan Friedman is a reporter at CongressDaily.

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