[lg policy] US: Some agencies do better than others at keeping the language simple

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Nov 23 14:51:33 UTC 2013

Some agencies do better than others at keeping the language simple

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  By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

6:20 p.m. EST, November 22, 2013

Every so often Greg Rosenthal comes across a word like "diapause."

And that's when things get interesting.

A 10-year veteran of the U.S. Department of
Rosenthal is frequently responsible for translating the wonky, academic
language used by scientists and policy experts into words and concepts the
public can understand.

His work is paying off for the USDA. The Center for Plain Language, a
Virginia-based group that promotes clear communication in government and
business, last week ranked the department's written word among the best in
the federal government.

"I just know that nobody knows what 'diapause' is — at least no layperson,"
Rosenthal said. (The scientific term refers to a pause in insect
development caused by environmental factors such as temperature, he said.)

"It's a real change in culture to get people to think about communicating
differently," he said.

Weeding bureaucratic language out of the world's largest bureaucracy is a
major undertaking that dates back to at least the 1970s. President Richard
M. Nixon<http://www.baltimoresun.com/topic/politics/government/presidents-of-the-united-states/richard-nixon-PEHST000115.topic>called
for notices published in the Federal Register to be written in
"layman's terms," and President Jimmy
executive orders requiring agencies to make their regulations

Advocates say better government communication has tangible benefits.
Explaining a regulation and having people understand it on the first
go-round saves time. It also makes it more likely that people will comply.

But department officials frequently ignored the broad White
and subsequent administrations overturned the orders. Many agencies
throughout the government continue to struggle with clarity on websites and
in public notices and rules.

As President Barack
on the troubled rollout of the Affordable
Care Act<http://www.baltimoresun.com/topic/health/healthcare-laws/affordable-care-act-%28obamacare%29-EVGAP00039.topic>earlier
this month, he noted that one problem with Healthcare.gov is that
users don't always understand it.

"So what we're doing — even as we're trying to solve the technical problems
— is also [to ask] 'What can we do to make the application a little bit
simpler, what can we do to make it in English as opposed to
bureaucratese?'" the president said at the White House.

Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2010. The legislation requires each
agency to train employees in producing clear prose and to dedicate a
section of its website to the issue. It also directs each department to
designate a senior official to make sure the requirements are followed.

But the law carries no repercussions for agencies that ignore it. And
that's where the Center for Plain Language comes in.

The group grades 20 agencies on how well they comply with the law's
requirements and how well they communicate. The USDA scored an A and a B on
those measures.

The Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration performed better than any
other agency studied, scoring a pair of A's. The agency received straight
C's in last year's report card.

Agency officials declined to be interviewed about the steps they have taken
to improve writing.

"Over the past year, we worked diligently to assess and enhance our plain
writing efforts," Carolyn W. Colvin, the agency's acting commissioner, told
The Baltimore Sun in a statement. "We recognize the importance of
communicating clearly."

Other agencies performed poorly. The Treasury
the Department
of Housing and Urban
received an F in following the law and a D in the quality of

"Some agencies are doing much better than others," said Rep. Bruce
the Iowa Democrat who sponsored the Plain Writing Act. "People need to
write for their intended audience, and their intended audience … is not
lawyers, it's taxpayers."

A Treasury official said the department has named points of contact on the
issue — a requirement of the act — and its home page now links to the
plain-writing section of its website.

"Treasury puts a high priority on financial literacy and transparency, and
that's something we need to keep in mind each and every day as we're
communicating with taxpayers," the department said in a statement.

A HUD spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Rosenthal is a public affairs specialist at the USDA's Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service, based in Prince George's
In addition to producing news releases and writing for the agency's
website, he also works on special projects. The agency won an award this
year from the Center on Plain Language for a brochure about invasive

The department has also placed an emphasis on teaching employees to
simplify their writing. Nearly 800 in the inspection service agency alone
have gone through some form of plain-language training, either online or in
person, said Beth Gaston, a policy analyst who oversees that effort.

For Katie Lusby, a publications editor who works with Rosenthal, one of the
biggest challenges can be convincing colleagues that it's OK to not write

"There's a tendency, especially in the government, to want it to sound
official," she said.

Although the Plain Language Act lacks an enforcement provision, Lusby said
it has given momentum to efforts to change how people think about
government writing.

"It's really starting to shift," she said. "People are becoming more
comfortable with writing in a personal, casual way."

*john.fritze at baltsun.com <john.fritze at baltsun.com>*

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