[lg policy] Whatcom County (Washington State): Plain-language inititative simplifies Whatcom government without cost

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 14 19:59:07 UTC 2014

Plain-language inititative simplifies Whatcom government without cost



The first time my daughter signed an email LOL, I tried to think of all the
endearing things that she meant which started with "love" like "love, of
course" or "love our lives" or "love on line." You can imagine my surprise
when I learned it was "laugh out loud." She wasn't showing her dad her
eternal love and respect, she was laughing at some of my sage advice.

And there were times when I sat there staring at "brb" wondering what on
earth she was saying and not answering my important question (she, of
course, meant: be right back).

It's one thing when your young adult daughter texts you with an acronym and
you try to figure out what she means. But it's another when the government
that serves you does the same thing when you are trying to get a permit,
figure out what your tax dollars are being spent on, or understand the
rules you are required to follow.

One lesson I learned early in my computer industry career is to be
successful at serving my customers I had to communicate using the "language
of my customer." I had to become educated on the complex aspects of my
customers' business. It also included basic stuff and common sense -- such
as using "plain language" when we drafted our advertising and marketing
materials instead of filling documents with industry acronyms.

When I took office in January, the first packet of material I had to read
for my first council meeting the following week was 220 pages. The second
meeting it was 949. In addition, I received agendas, minutes and other
material during committee presentations and public hearings. While I
expected that my new job would require a lot of reading and new
information, I had not expected the amount of time I had to spend on simply
finding explanations for the "alphabet soup" of acronyms in almost every
document. Things like PIC, NPDES, WUCC, CWSP, FCZDBS, WCHD, ASR, and my
personal favorite MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system).

The good news is we have fine county employees, all of whom were more than
willing to take the time to tell me what the acronyms meant. The bad news
was I had to frequently interrupt their presentations to ask them to
explain the meaning behind the acronyms. Worst of all, I found the general
public -- our governments' "customers" were struggling to understand the
same documents unless they also happened to be an expert in that particular

We hear all the time that if we tried this idea or that idea, businesses
would hire more people. What I know for certain is that rules that are
difficult to understand or costly to comply with have a very real impact on
job creation. As someone who has built and operated a substantial company,
I found it frustrating and disheartening to have to hire lawyers and
accountants simply to have them translate some government rule or
regulation. Sometimes even our professional advisors would misinterpret
what the rules meant. That invariably resulted in some additional expense
and more frustration later, which we could have avoided if the rules had
been better written.

I am confident that by following plain language policies in Whatcom County
that local government will become more accessible to the citizens we serve
and more attractive to employers. I am very pleased and impressed to say
that the moment the draft resolution was released that many county
employees began embracing the idea; they saw the value to our "customers"
and started writing their documents accordingly. The more the language of
government resembles the language of the people they serve, the more we
will appreciate it. More importantly, the less time county employees have
to spend each day just explaining how government works, the more productive
both business and our government can be.

The really good news is that implementing a plain-language policy will give
us many benefits without any additional expenses, new taxes, or new rules
our citizens will have to understand and follow.

Finally, this resolution received universal support from across the
political spectrum, a refreshing change in today's world of opposing
objectives and partisan politics.


Rud Browne holds the at-large position on the Whatcom County Council.
Previously, he founded a company that employed 360 people across five

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