The sixth annual Federal Plain Language report card released on Thursday revealed a drop in agencies’ use of clear English, with overall grades dropping at more than half of the agencies assessed.
Of 21 agencies reviewed, 11 agencies saw their scores decline from the previous year, and just six saw an increase, according to the report released by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language. Agencies are required to improve their communication with the public under the 2010 Plain Writing Act.
The grades are based on volunteer credentialed judges’ evaluations of two documents submitted by agencies. This year the documents were a “Frequently Asked Questions” feature common on federal websites and an infographic illustrating data.
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The Agriculture Department had the highest overall score, with As in both categories, while the Social Security Administration stood out as the only agency to earn an A-plus for its writing and design on an FAQ.
The average grade was a B, the center reported. The lowest grades were the D-pluses earned on the FAQs by the Housing and Urban Development and the Treasury departments. Also designated as needing improvement was the Commerce Department, which received a D on infographics. Scores for the Commerce and the Health and Human Services Department dropped by two whole letter grades, while SSA jumped up a whole letter grade.
“This year’s Federal Plain Language Report Card shows that while some progress has been made, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure federal agencies are more clearly communicating with the public,” said Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, a former political science professor and longtime backer of the law. “As a former college teacher, I wouldn’t be happy” with the 11 percent drop in agency clear writing, he told reporters. “I’m not sure the American public should be either. “
Asked whether the agencies are handling the plain writing challenge any differently under the Trump administration, center board member Chip Crane, a University of Maryland English professor who advises agencies, speculated that the issue “may not be as much on the front burner” given that 2017 is a transition year and many jobs are held by acting officials. All administrations pay attention to the challenge because it’s the law, he said. “It’s a slow cultural change,” Crane added. But the goal is to “keep the importance of plain writing on the front burner for agencies and reward the ones that produce good examples.”