A History of Plain Language in the United States Government (2004)
Awareness of the need for clear language isn't new in the US government.
Before the 1970s:Interest in making government documents clear has a long, but checkered, history in the United States. After World War II, federal employees like Jim Minor advocated plain language in government documents. John O'Hayre, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, wrote a book called Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go.
For many of us in the US government today, the current plain-language movement had its start in the 1970s when the federal government encouraged regulation writers to be less bureaucratic.
President Nixon created some early momentum when he decreed that the Federal Register be written in “layman's terms.” In 1977, the Federal Communications Commission issued rules for Citizens Band Radios that were written as a series of short questions and answers, with personal pronouns, sentences in the active voice, and clear instructions. These regulations were probably the first to appear entirely in plain English. The current Citizens Band Radio Rules, issued in 1983, continued the plain language style of the 1977 rules.
In 1978, President Carter issued Executive Orders intended to make government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who were required to comply with them.” A few federal agencies responded by publishing regulations that were more clearly written, although the efforts were sporadic.
The Department of Education decided to fund a research and development contract to study the problems in public documents and get help for Federal agencies that wanted to implement plain language. The contract, called the Document Design Project, went to the not-for-profit American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC, in a consortium with Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a private firm, Siegel & Gale, in New York. The Document Design Project team helped many agencies write plain language regulations and other documents, including the Federal Communications Commission rules for Marine Radios, the Housing & Urban Development rules for the Privacy Act, and clearer forms and instructions for student financial assistance. One of the books from the Document Design Project, Guidelines for Document Designers, served as a handbook for government writers for many years.
1980s:President Reagan rescinded President Carter's Executive Orders, and there was limited progress in the Federal Government during the 1980s. It was an agency-by-agency decision whether or not to make plain, clear writing a priority. Some agencies did. For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) made it a priority to communicate more clearly with the public, revising many of their notices into plain language.
Lawyers started to become interested. Since most government agencies are well staffed with attorneys, it was an important step that they started to be convinced of the benefits of plain language. Professor Joseph Kimble of the Thomas Cooley Law School became an active advocate of plain legal writing and has published many articles on that subject. He also edits The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing and the "Plain Language" Column in the Michigan Bar Journal. That column began in 1984 and is the longest-running column on legal writing. PLAIN shares Professor Kimble's articles with government attorneys.
In 1998, President Clinton revived plain language as a major government initiative. Clinton issued a Presidential Memorandum that formalized the requirement for federal employees to write in plain language, requiring all new regulations to be written clearly by January 1, 1999. He wrote:
“By using plain language, we send a clear message about what the government is doing, what it requires, and what services it offers…. Plain language documents have logical organization; common, everyday words, except for necessary technical terms; ‘you' and other pronouns; the active voice; and short sentences.”
This message was directed primarily at regulation writers and government attorneys. The President also directed that all other written communication with citizens use plain language in all new documents, other than regulations, that explain how to obtain a benefit or service or how to comply with a requirement you administer or enforce.
He assigned Vice President Al Gore to monitor and encourage this initiative. Vice President Gore believed that plain language promotes trust in government, and said, “Plain Language is a civil right.” As the lead for the plain language initiative, he presented No Gobbledygook awards monthly to federal employees who took bureaucratic messages and turned them into plain language that citizens can understand.
Arthur Levitt, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission at the time, was a champion of plain language and realized how critical it is for financial documents. The SEC handbook remains an excellent resource on plain language writing.
SEC Plain English Handbook
Warren Buffet, a friend of Levitt's, summed up plain language marvelously in this “writing tip” in the introduction to the 1998 SEC Plain English Handbook.
Write with a specific person in mind. When writing the Berkshire Hathaway annual report, I picture my sisters, highly intelligent, but not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is to give the information I would wish to receive if our positions were reversed.
2000s:The current administration does not have a formal plain language initiative, however a mandate for communicating clearly with the public is part of the Strategic Plan in a number of federal departments and agencies. Many agencies have strong, active plain-language programs in place.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
FAA is home to the leader of the US Government's plain-language movement, Annetta Cheek. Dr. Cheek hosts the monthly meeting of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). Every member of PLAIN is working to ensure that the information written by federal employees is in plain language. Some members of PLAIN volunteer to train staff in other agencies on how to use plain language in their agency's specific documents. FAA has a strong plain-language program of its own.
The Office of the Federal Register is revising its requirements and allowing many plain language tools and techniques. It has produced two excellent aids to plain language, Making Regulations Readable and Drafting Legal Documents.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
FDA realizes that low health literacy combined with the increasing incidence of chronic health problems like diabetes and obesity results in a serious public health problem. To fight these problems most effectively, they know it is more important than ever to use plain language so consumers get information that is clear, informative, and effective in helping them improve or maintain their health.
Health and Human Services (HHS)
Secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson sponsored an Interagency Plain Language Forum in 2002 and personally urged everyone on his staff and throughout the government to communicate in plain language.
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
NIH has a plain language coordinating committee that meets regularly and helps spread the word about clear writing to all the NIH Institutes and Centers.
Veteran's Benefits Administration (VBA)
VBA has trained many thousands of staff in Reader Focused Writing, so that letters and notices to veterans are easier to read and so that veterans understand better how to apply for the benefits they deserve.
A few final words
Federal employees are coming to understand that the plain language initiative isn't simply the Federal Government's newest writing fad. It's been here for a long time, but is becoming even more important in the current days of information moving onto the web, of many citizens becoming older, of everyone being so busy that they have little time to untangle gobbledygook.
The private sector as well as the public sector has been actively using and spreading plain language. And the United States is not the only place where plain language is taking hold. In fact, other countries have been actively pursuing plain language even longer than we have. Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have many examples of plain English, and plain language is an important initiative in many other countries, including Sweden, Italy, and Mexico.
PLAIN believes the public deserves to understand what its government is doing for them and expects of them. Whether or not there is a government-wide mandate to use plain language as government leaders come and go, the initiative has taken hold. The public is beginning to see the difference plain, clear writing can make. They are starting to expect no less from their government.