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Uncle Sam still can’t write very well, study shows

Plain language gurus grade the federal agencies on their ability to communicate.

Uncle Sam’s writing is still a work in progress, according to a nonprofit watchdog group that advocates for a jargon-free government.

The Center for Plain Language on Thursday issued report cards for the first time grading several agencies’ efforts to comply with a 2010 law to make government documents, reports and forms easier to read and understand. The 12 departments and agencies included in the analysis received two grades, one for compliance with the law’s specific requirements and another that evaluated their efforts in areas such as training and measuring results.

So far, the Agriculture Department is leading the pack in clear and concise communication, earning an A from the center for compliance with the law and a B for meeting more subjective criteria. The Defense and Labor departments, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration, each earned a B for fulfilling basic requirements, but did not fare as well in the other category, earning a D, an F, and a C, respectively.

The remaining departments and agencies included in the analysis received lackluster grades: mostly Cs and Ds, and four Fs. The other agencies the Center for Plain Language looked at were the Environmental Protection Agency; Small Business Administration; Social Security Administration; and the Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs departments.

Overall, the grades were mixed partly because some agencies did not provide feedback, said Annetta Cheek, chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language. She said she included as many agencies as possible in the analysis, but was limited by time and resources. The center intends to assess agencies’ plain language efforts annually, she added.

Cheek, who has worked since 1995 on converting the federal government to plain language, said the mission hasn’t been easy, but she remains upbeat. “There’s certainly been enough progress to encourage me to go on,” said the former employee of the Federal Aviation Administration and Interior Department during a conference call with reporters. Some elements of plain language include writing in the active voice, keeping sentences on the short side and using common words instead of bureaucratic language. “It’s writing so your intended audience can easily find and use what they need from that material,” Cheek said.

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, sponsor of the 2010 Plain Writing Act, now plans to push for plain language in government regulations, he told reporters during Thursday’s briefing. Braley, who said he saw firsthand as a lawyer in Iowa how clear writing in government documents helped juries make informed decisions, said he will ask House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to hold a hearing on how well agencies are complying with the current law.

Braley said straightforward communication between the government and the public can save taxpayer money and improve operations, and it’s important for agencies to demonstrate those successes. He singled out VA for praise, saying the department simplified letters to disabled vets about the status of their claims by using less confusing language, helping to expedite the overall process. A VA official testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday about the department’s efforts to fix a backlog of disability compensation claims.

Cheek said federal employees often are pressed for time on the job, and if they are writing a report, for example, they might refer to the previous year’s document, which is usually replete with jargon, and mimic that style. People also write for their supervisors or attorneys or other technically minded folks and bureaucratic language creeps into their work. “Federal agencies and Congress are in the business of telling people what to do, and if you tell people what to do in a way they don’t understand, you are not going to get very good results,” she said.

The basic requirements of the law included in the Center for Plain Language’s analysis are:

  • Appoint a senior official to implement plain language
  • Create a performance plan and file a compliance report
  • Design a plain language page on the agency website that links from the home page
  • Provide a mechanism for public feedback
  • Educate employees in plain language
  • Use plain language in documents

(Image via Yuralaits Albert/Shutterstock.com)