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No Gobbledygook Award 9

The White House
Office of the Vice President

For Immediate Release
April 26, 1999

Veterans Benefits Administration Employees Get Vice President Gore’s Plain Language Award

Washington, DC—This month Vice President Gore used his plain language award to recognize the work of more than 800 front line employees in the Veteran’s Benefits Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Today, three VBA employees accepted the No Gobbledygook Award in the Roosevelt Room on behalf of VBA’s national “reader-focused writing” team. The three employees are Melodee Mercer, Insurance Service, Philadelphia; Chuck Graffam, Vocational Rehab, Washington, DC; and Wayne Taylor, Compensation and Pensions, Washington, DC.

VBA’s Accomplishments

VBA is the leader in the government for plain language letter writing. When the agency initiated the plain language program several years ago, it developed training on how to write clearly for customers, and delivered the training to 800 employees nationwide. Employees translated hundreds of VBA’s standard letters into plain language, getting customer feedback to ensure that the readers understood the message VBA intended them to get.

A new round of training began this month. VBA intends to train 8000 of their 11,000 employees in the principles of plain language writing.

Sample Letter from the Insurance Service

As an example, below is a description of the changes plain language writers made to a beneficiary solicitation letter from the Insurance Service. This letter asks insured veterans to update their beneficiary information.

  • Before

    The proceeds of your life insurance policy will be paid to your last named beneficiary of record with the Department of Veterans Affairs according to the payment option selected by you. Our experience shows that many insureds fail to keep their designations up-to-date when there are changes in their personal circumstances… Therefore, if you desire, but have not selected the lump sum settlement option or cannot remember the option you selected, or believe your beneficiary designation is not otherwise current, we suggest you complete the enclosed form and return it to us.

  • After

    We are updating our computer systems for the year 2000. This also allows us to update the way we store our records and process our claims. This is a perfect opportunity for you to update your records as well. This letter will explain what we have done to update our records and what you can do to update yours.

The rewritten letter significantly simplifies the message in language and format. VBA presents the information in its written letter in questions and answers and provides very direct and simply stated answers compared with the “before” version, which is very vague in its purpose. The language is directed to the second person making a better connection with the intended audience of the letter. VBA uses questions and answers to:

  • Clearly organize the information in the letter
  • Make it easier for the recipient to understand
  • Tell how addressees can get help if they need it

Tracking Savings

Claims adjusters spend at least 30 minutes a claim trying to locate beneficiaries to pay claims. The average cost of locating these beneficiaries and paying their claims is $10.25 per claim. If beneficiaries respond to this letter, it will take only 9 minutes to pay the claim, at an average cost of $1.57 per claim. If policyholders respond to the letter as they did in the test mailing, the savings will be approximately $1.5 million for just those policyholders with beneficiary forms over 40 years.

VBA is the first agency to track savings from plain language. The plain language rewrite of this letter resulted in a 75% increase in the number of responses to an initial test mailing of 2500 letters, compared to responses to the original letter. VBA projects that it will save over $8 million because of this rewrite, due to decreased costs of tracking down beneficiaries in order to pay claims.