Agencies Recognized for Making Documents Readable

But Homeland Security Department is still struggling to make sense, advocacy group says.

Several federal agencies were commended on Wednesday for publishing official government literature in “clear and concise language.”

Three federal agencies won high honors at the 2013 ClearMark awards given out by the Center for Plain Language, an advocacy group. The awards are given “to the best plain language documents and websites,” and an international panel adjudicates the entries.

Among the federal agencies that won the CPL’s top category honors:

  • The Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for the best public sector website.
  • The U.S. Energy Information Administration for the best public sector original document.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Boating and Infrastructure Grant Program for the best legal document.

Other winners include the Agriculture Department, which won distinction and merit awards in several categories, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which won a merit award for a revised document.

However, it wasn’t all smiles for the federal government’s writers. The Homeland Security Department received its second WonderMark award for “most confusing language in a document or website.” It won the dubious title after publishing a document intended for non-native English speakers in what the CPL said was “such bureaucratic style that someone who was born and raised in this country may not recognize this as English.”

One of the winners had advice for the federal government’s scribes. Colleen Blessing, a senior editor at the Energy Information Administration—and one of the people responsible for the agency’s winning writing style guide—said agency employees frequently approached her with questions on how official documents should be written. She believes that “anything can be expressed in plain language,” and encouraged agency heads to conduct usability tests to ensure that all parties understand official publications.

“Consider who you’re writing it for and what the purpose is,” Blessing said.

The agency’s communications excellence goes beyond the ClearMark awards. Blessing said that the EIA was up for a handful awards on Wednesday evening from the National Association of Government Communicators for the agency’s electronic and Web publications.

The awards come as the movement for plain language writing and regulations in government has begun heating up again. In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Language Writing Act, designed to help simplify government documents that would have normally been covered in bureaucratic legalese. Since then, many agencies have struggled to make progress.

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, the sponsor of the original Plain Language Writing Act, reintroduced legislation in the House on Monday to further streamline what would otherwise be confusing government regulations.

Simplifying regulations won’t eliminate costs of compliance, but it will reduce them,” Braley said in a statement.