Washington State employees tell it like it is

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Dec 10 16:37:23 UTC 2006

Wash. state workers tell it like it is

By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press Writer Sat Dec 9, 1:31 PM ET

The average person may find it tough to understand state government, but
Washington state officials want to deploy changes to alleviate state
personnel's employment of acronyms, jargon and legalese that routinely
pervade interfaces with constituents. Or in plain speak: Talk to the
public as you would talk to any other person simply, and in plain
language. In the 18 months since Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered all state
agencies to adopt "plain talk" principles, more than 2,000 state employees
have attended classes on writing letters, announcements and documents in
everyday language.

So words like abeyance, cease and utilize are out, replaced by suspension,
stop and use. "If people are able to apply for an environmental permit and
get it right the first time because they were able to understand it,
that's success,"  said Larisa Benson, director of the Government
Management Accountability and Performance system. When citizens know what
the government is asking of them, there's a better chance they'll comply,
officials have found.

For example, by rewriting one letter, the Department of Revenue tripled
the number of businesses paying the "use tax," the widely ignored
equivalent of sales tax on products purchased out of state. That meant an
extra $800,000 collected over two years by the department, which had
started its own plain talk initiative before the governor's order. "Simple
changes can have profound results," said Janet Shimabukuro, manager of the
department's taxpayer services program. "Plain talk isn't only rewriting,
it's rethinking your approach and really personalizing your message to the
audience and to the reader." Gregoire says it's "a long-overdue
initiative, but it's bearing fruit."

"When we just talk in a way that takes our language, government language,
and throws it out, and talk in language everyone understands, we get a
whole lot more done," she said. Though other states have done some similar
work, Washington state is believed to be the first to have a full-scale
effort, said Thom Haller, executive director of the Center for Plain
Language in Washington, D.C.  The nonprofit center urges government and
business officials to use clear, understandable language in laws and other
public communications. In 1997, newly elected Gov. Gary Locke issued an
executive order requiring the Washington Administrative Code to be written
and organized in a more simple way. In the mid-90s, some state agencies
started using plain language rules for training, on Web sites and in
letters to the public.

The government of the District of Columbia started a plain language
initiative in 2004, and many federal agencies have plain language programs
as well, Haller said. "We're seeing them embrace it because they're
recognizing that clarity in structure and language is important," he said.
"It enables people to get their jobs done more efficiently." How did state
workers start speaking bureaucratic gobbledygook? "It's almost as if we
have hundreds of different tribes out there with different languages,"
said Dana Howard Botka, the plain language program coordinator for
Gregoire. "Knowing the language of that tribe is essential to belonging to
it. There's pride in knowing the language of your profession."

Writing consultant Sharon Bridwell, who teaches up to three classes a
month for state employees, said her students just need help breaking old
habits. "It's like bursting them free to do what they really can do," she
said. At a recent class in Olympia, Bridwell used slides and easels to
write out pointers such as keeping sentences short. Rich Coleman, a
project manager with the state Employment Security Department, said he'd
try to be more concise in his letters to the public.

"I'm more wordy than I would like to be," said Coleman, who corresponds
with prisoners or their families to help them rejoin the work force. "It's
an opportunity to see that the less I write, the more effective I am in
getting the information across." Botka said the heart of the plain talk
initiative is to change the mind-set of state workers, to get them to
think about the person who is reading the document or the Web page before
they write it. "We're talking about people's rights and benefits," she
said. "If they can't understand them, then they really don't have access
to their government."


On the Net:

Washington state's Plain Talk initiative:

Plain Language Action and Information Network:

Center for Plain Language: http://www.centerforplainlanguage.org/



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