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February 06, 2008
Federal agencies have gotten better over the years at communicating clearly with the public. A quiet movement has bubbled along in pockets throughout the government for more than a decade, with advocates of plain language slowly making headway in convincing their bosses that it's more important to help people understand the government than to satisfy the general counsel offices and other protectors of bureaucratese.
The application for federal student aid, for example, is still a bit clunky but is much easier to complete now than it was in the 1990s. The Social Security Administration's benefits application process also is much smoother. A key factor in the government's improved communications skills has been the shift from paper to online. Plain language advocates took advantage of the move to the Internet by arguing that attention spans are much shorter when people are looking at a computer screen rather than at a printed booklet.
Of course, there's still much work to be done. Internal documents are written in laborious jargon, as are many regulations and Federal Register announcements. Annetta Cheek was one of the plain language advocates toiling in the bureaucracy until recently, when she left government to devote her attention to the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit that pushes better communication both in government and in business. Cheek is helping push a bill through Congress that would call on federal agencies to write in plain language. In 2007, companion bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate. This year Cheek will be advocating for more and more lawmakers to get on board the bandwagon. It's a tough sell, in part, because it's such a mom-and-apple-pie idea. Who is against plain language? So why pass a law requiring it?
But one previous lawmaker already is on board - former California Republican congressman Christopher Cox, who is now the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Last year, he pushed businesses to write disclosures required by federal law in language that the average investor could understand. For example, major public companies must publish documents each year justifying their executives' compensation plans. The SEC is encouraging companies to simplify the explanations.
Bureaucratese is a problem in the private sector as much as in government. Indeed, Cox's agency is asking investors about the readability of all disclosure documents they come across. The agency will use the findings of their survey to help businesses write more clearly.
|Gov. Gregoire honors eight leaders in Washington Plain Talk initiative|
November 06, 2007
Governor Chris Gregoire today named eight state agency projects as
recipients of the 2007 Governor’s Plain Talk Award. This year’s
awards mark the first year that the Governor will distribute annual
Plain Talk awards, which will be given as recognition of outstanding
state agency plain language efforts.
Full Story: www.governor.wa.gov/news/news-view.asp?pressRelease=681&newsType=1
|A push for plain English|
October 29, 2007
Gobbledygook. It's the stuff of government. Maybe its No. 1 export.
|State gains ground in burying bureaucratic babble|
August 06, 2007
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
That is the plain language version of an old saying.
Translated into government speak: A plethora of individuals with expertise in culinary techniques vitiates the potable concoction.
Until now, that is.
Gov. Charlie Crist is on a crusade to rid state government communications of unclear or confusing writing and speech, one of the first projects he began when he took office in January.
Since then, departments have had monthly "plain language" meetings with the goal of training staff to write information that is understandable to the average Floridian.
One of those departments, the Agency for Health Care Administration, launched a Web-based program several months ago that lets workers translate governmentese into plain language. Sometimes the agency uses sayings such as the one above, and other times, it allows employees to translate real examples of government jargon into writing that is easier to understand.
Workers enjoy the "splash screens" that pop up on their computers when they log on in the morning, challenging them to turn nearly incomprehensible language into everyday English, agency officials say.
Such as this one: "Minuscule erudition jeopardizes security."
Translation: "A little learning is a dangerous thing."
Or this: "Pursuant to Section 409.913(3), Florida Statutes, the Agency for Health Care Administration has determined that prepayment review be conducted on your Medicaid claims. This action is effective for those claims currently in the system for processing as well as claims submitted after this date. These claims will be suspended by the Agency for review prior to processing."
Its translation: "Under Section 409.913(3), Florida Statutes, the Agency for Health Care Administration will conduct a review of your Medicaid claims prior to processing them. This action affects claims in the system as well as future claims."
Participation is voluntary and meant to make employees aware of language patterns they sometimes fall into at work, said agency spokesman Fernando Senra.
"The foundation of plain language is pretty basic," he said. "When you're not at work, you are using plain language, or you think you do. Sometimes when you walk into work, you get into work mode and you have these not easy ways of explaining things."
Besides the splash-screen exercises, the agency has issued a "Plain Language Booklet" to about 300 employees in supervisory or communications-related jobs.
A Florida State University business writing professor said the booklet, which Crist's office is considering as a model for other executive departments, includes some helpful tips, such as writing in the active voice, editing ruthlessly and avoiding wordy expressions.
But she said it is written in such a way that it probably provides little help for bureaucrats.
"I can't see it motivating anybody to change what they do," said Lise Diez-Arguellos, who includes plain language in her business writing courses at Florida State University.
For example, she said, the handbook often includes "deadwood," or words that don't add anything to the information it's relaying, such as its advice, "Every time you write about something, you are - in effect - marketing yourself and the Agency."
The plain language version of that, Diez-Arguellos said, would be: "When you write, you are marketing yourself and the agency."
The effort to train Florida government workers is part of a national trend. In 1995, a group of federal employees created a group now called the Plain Language Action and Information Network to help government workers craft documents that are "easy to read and understand."
The definition of plain language is simple: "communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it," according to the group's Web site, plainlanguage.gov. The same goal would apply to English or any other language.
In addition, the splash-screen exercises the agency uses also are used by government and private agencies nationwide trying to retrain employees to break things down simply for clients.
Diez-Arguellos said she is thrilled that Crist introduced the idea to Florida.
"This is an extremely difficult task, and they work in an environment where they don't even recognize it anymore," she said. "Plain language is not academic writing. It is not personal writing. It isn't even technical writing. It's just what's called plain English."
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