Plain and Simple: Communications Missing the Mark


The 2010 Plain Writing Act, an attempt to make government communicate more clearly with the public, was a great idea. Saying it has to happen, however, is proving a lot easier than making it happen.

An update from The Washington Post:

Advocates estimate that federal officials have translated just 10 percent of their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” as the law requires.

Official communications must now employ the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. “Addressees” must now become, simply, “you.” Clunky coinages like “incentivizing” (first known usage 1970) are a no-no. The Code of Federal Regulations no longer goes by the abbreviation CFR.

But with no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part, advocates worry that plain writing has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list, like many another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress. They say many agencies have heeded the 2010 law merely by appointing officials, creating working groups and setting up Web sites.

There are examples of plain language working.

In Washington state, a revamped letter tripled the number of businesses paying a commonly ignored use tax, bringing $2 million in new revenue in a year, according to law professor Joseph Kimble, author of a forthcoming book on the benefits of plain language.

And after the Department of Veterans Affairs revised one of its letters, calls to a regional call center dropped from about 1,100 a year to about 200, Kimble said.

“People complain about government red tape and getting government out of your hair,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), House sponsor of the Plain Writing Act. “If every one of these forms was written in plain language, the number of contacts to federal agencies would plummet.” 

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