(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Seven years after enactment of a law requiring federal agencies to use accessible, “plain language” in its mass communications with the public, a watchdog group reported Thursday that agencies are communicating even less effectively than before.
The independent Center for Plain Language joined U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) on Thursday to report that agencies’ “plain language” grades have actually declined 11 percent, roughly half a letter grade, in the past year. And for the first time ever, two agencies – the Departments of Treasury and of Housing and Urban Development – received D+ grades for writing (and another received a D+ for info-graphics); In the two prior years, no agency had scored below the lower C range in any category.
Using a deadpan tone of voice indicative of deliberate understatement, Loebsack told a media conference call that “there really is some room for improvement here – plenty of room.”
President Barack Obama had signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, passed by a bipartisan and nearly unanimous congressional majority, to require “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”
As one news analysis put it, “Overall, fixing government writing is supposed to save citizens’ wasted time and, maybe, also save money by cutting out overlapping government forms and bureaucratic make-work.”
(For example: Instead of web pages using gobbledygook such as “claimants under this subpart” “subrogating” the government, “plain writing” would simply ask for citizens to “pay back” the government if the government overpays a benefit.)
The law, however, had no enforcement mechanism. The non-profit Center for Plain Language stepped in, using well-trained volunteers and consistent criteria to analyze how well agencies are complying with the law. This year, it decided that the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of any agency would be the main one scrutinized, because that is the one to which most people would turn if they were seeking quickly understandable answers for questions easily anticipatable by the agency.
“Of all types of communication, a frequently asked question page should be one written clearly for the general public,” said Chip Crane, a board member of the Center and lead author of the report, in the media call with Loebsack.
As a second category, the Center also analyzed agency “infographics,” because so much of the public has become accustomed to visual aids rather than reading.
The Agriculture Department did quite well, as the only agency or department scoring an A in both categories. The Defense Department (one A, one B+) and Social Security Administration (one A+, one B) also scored impressively. But overall, the agencies scored more C grades (15) than A grades (13). On the other end of the spectrum, in addition to the D+ grades in writing mentioned above, the Justice Department scored a C-minus in both categories. The Department of Commerce also had a D+ in infographics to go along with a weak C on its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
For an example of unhelpful FAQ presentation, the Center noted that the Department of Transportation had a whole page on some program with the acronym TIFIA without ever saying what the letters in TIFIA stand for – and then under “Eligibility Requirements” for it, listed the actual federal code language, including such bureaucratese as “capitalized interest necessary to meet market requirements, reasonably required reserve funds, capital issuance expenses, and other carrying costs during construction.”
Citizens have complained about confusing government forms for decades of course, and for decades presidents have been demanding, as Richard Nixon did in the 1970s, that federal regulations be written “in layman’s terms.”
Just don’t ask a bureaucrat to define “layman,” unless you want five paragraphs filed in triplicate.