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Plain Language Initiative Announcement

Vice President Al Gore gave this speech on June 1, 1998 at the National Small Business Week Awards.

I’m delighted to be with you today to present the awards for Small Business Person of the Year; and to make an announcement—as part of our Reinventing Government Initiative—that will have a positive impact on small business, and on all Americans who communicate with their government.

Small business has always been a special concern for me. When I was a new member of the House of Representatives, I was author and principal sponsor of the “Small Business Innovation Research” initiative. This bill earmarked some research money exclusively for small businesses, an idea that would find very few opponents today. But it’s surprising to remember how much opposition there was to that back then—especially among certain interest groups who were used to having the whole pie to themselves. Today, I’m proud to say, the Small Business Innovation Research program is the single largest seed fund for venture capital in the federal government.

The fact is, the small business sector is the economic backbone of America. That’s why President Clinton and I have worked so hard to create the climate you need to succeed. We have worked to balance the budget, invest in our people, open foreign markets, and bring inflation and interest rates to their lowest levels in a generation.

We also made the SBA Administrator a full member of the President’s cabinet. We restored deductions for home offices. We reduced estate taxes on family-owned businesses. We reduced capital gains for small businesses. We made it easier for you to offer your employees pensions. And we are making employee health insurance 100% deductible. At the same time, the SBA has demonstrated such success in lending to small businesses—that private sector small business lending has risen exponentially in just the last few years.

The record could not be more clear: President Clinton and I have responded aggressively to the needs of small business. And small business has responded in turn. Every year since we came into office, a record number of new small businesses have started up in America—with a record of 870,000 in 1997 alone. And that means millions of new jobs. As you know, small businesses are responsible for 80 percent of the 15 million new jobs created since we’ve taken office.

President Clinton and I are proud of our contributions to America’s small business success. But we know the major reasons for our success are the aggressive, inventive, risk-taking entrepreneurs—the people we’re here to honor today with our 35th annual Small Business Person of the Year Awards.

Let me begin with the award for second runner-up. Almost thirty years ago, our award winner started a firm that anticipated the great technological advances of the future. With the help of some SBA loans along the way, he now designs and manufactures leading information security software. He has annual sales of more than $22 million; he employs 148 people, and by making electronic commerce safer, his products boost the professional opportunities of millions more. Ladies and Gentlemen, the second runner up for the National Small Business Person of the year, the President and Chief Executive of Litronic Industries in Irvine, California—Mr. Kris Shah.

Our award for first runner-up goes to the Chairman of a company founded more than 50 years ago. This company pioneered a method of cultivation that helps farmers save soil and water. They had some lean years as they waited for the world to wake up to the critical importance of conservation. But today, they export to countries on three continents. They employ ten percent of the entire workforce in the town of Columbus, Nebraska—and they are a reminder that economic development and environmental stewardship absolutely, positively go hand in hand. Ladies and Gentlemen, the first runner-up for the National Small Business Person of the Year—the Chairman of Fleischer Manufacturing, Inc—Mathew “Bud” Fleischer.

Our 1998 National Small Businessperson of the Year began his company in a basement with a $20,000 personal bank loan. Using a household clothes iron as a makeshift welding tool, he developed the prototype of a lighter, cheaper, sturdier, and more environmentally friendly package for compact discs. Two SBA loans helped the tiny company begin production. Today, it has a facilities in Columbus, Ohio; Sparks, Nevada; and Dublin, Ireland—and its customers include the biggest names in the business. For five years in a row, this company has made Inc. Magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing, privately-held companies in the United States. Ladies and Gentlemen: the 1998 National Small Business Person of the Year—the President and founder of Univenture Inc.—Mr. Ross Youngs.

Let me once again congratulate our winners, and all entrepreneurs who have a dream, take a risk, build a business, and offer good jobs to people in their communities. We are in debt to you all. Of course, the importance of these awards and this meeting is not merely to honor the experts, but to listen to them. You have asked us to cut red tape, reduce regulatory burdens, and simplify compliance. We have listened. Under our Reinventing Government initiative, we are working very hard to apply business principles to government. We have eliminated more than 200 outdated programs, 16,000 pages of regulations, and 640,000 pages of internal rules. And we’re not done yet.

Today, I am proud to announce—on behalf of the President—a new initiative that will go a long way to making government easier to understand. The President is issuing today an Executive Memorandum to the heads of all executive departments and agencies, directing them to begin writing in plain language to the American people.

Here is a general guide to plain language: short is better than long; active is better than passive; everyday terms are better than technical terms, and—you can use pronouns like “we” and “you;” in fact, you should. As many of our departments and agencies are already finding out: when you apply these rules, a 72-word regulation can shrink to six words; the title of a regulation can change from “means of egress” to “exit routes.” And letters to customers can create understanding, instead of confusion and frustration.

How many of you have ever gotten a letter like this? And I quote:

If we do not receive this information within 60 days from the date of this letter, your claim will be denied. Evidence must be received in the Department of Veterans Affairs within one year from the date of this letter; otherwise, benefits, if entitlement is established, may not be paid prior to the date of its receipt. SHOW VETERAN’S FULL NAME AND VA FILE NUMBER ON ALL EVIDENCE SUBMITTED.

Privacy Act Information: The information requested by this letter is authorized by existing law (38 U.S.C. 210 (c)(1)) and is considered necessary and relevant to determine entitlement to maximum benefits applied for under the law. The information submitted may be disclosed outside the Department of Veterans Affairs only as permitted by law.

Well, the Veterans Benefit Administration is now working directly with their customers to translate their letters into plain language. One of those customers, veteran Jock Lindsey, told them that some of their letters were, and I quote: “confusing and insulting.” Now that’s plain language! VBA kept writing and rewriting until Jock said: “This is how the government should write to its customers. I feel I’m talking to a real person.”

Because of VBA’s leadership in reaching out to customers like Jock—letters that used to read like what you just heard, now read like this:

We have your claim for a pension. Our laws require us to ask you for more information. The information you give us will help us decide whether we can pay you a pension.

What We Need: Send us a medical report from a doctor or clinic that you visited in the past six months. The report should show why you can’t work. Please take this letter and the enclosed Doctor’s Guide to your doctor.

When We Need: It We need your doctor’s report by June 28, 1998. We’ll have to turn down your claim if we don’t get your report by that date.

Your Right to Privacy: The information you give us is private. We might have to give out this information in a few special cases. But we will not give it out to the general public without your permission. We’ve attached a form which explains your privacy rights.

If you have any questions, call us toll-free by dialing 1-800-827-1000. If you call, please have this letter with you.

Here’s another example from the VBA:

  • Before

    We are providing the following information about an insurance payment you indicate you have not received or which is otherwise missing. We have given the Treasury Department the necessary information to trace the check in question.

  • After

    We received the missing check form you sent us. We asked the Treasury Department to find out what happened to your check.

There’s more. Here’s the first ever plain language regulation in the federal government. It’s from the Federal Communications Commission Rules for the Citizens Band Radio Service:

  • Before

    95.421 Who may sign applications.

    Applications, amendments thereto, and related statements of fact required by the Commission shall be personally signed by the applicant, if the applicant is an individual; by one of the partners, if the applicant is a partnership; by an officer, if the applicant is a corporation; or by a member, who is an officer, if the applicant is an unincorporated association.

    Applications, amendments, and related statements of fact filed on behalf of eligible government entities, such as states and territories of the United States and political subdivisions thereof, the District of Columbia, and units of local government, including incorporated municipalities shall be signed by such duly elected or appointed officials as may be competent to do so under the law of the applicable jurisdiction.

  • After

    95.425 How do I sign my CB license application?

    (a) If you are an individual, you must sign your own application personally

    (b) If the applicant is not an individual, the signature on an application must be made as follows:

    • For a partnership, one of the partners must sign;
    • For a Corporation, one of the officers must sign;
    • For an Association, one of the members who is an officer must sign;
    • For a Governmental Unit, an appropriate elected or appointed official must sign.

Here’s another example—an old regulation from OSHA:

The title of the old regulation is “Means of Egress.” Egress, by the way, means exit. The word is so little known, practical joker P.T. Barnum used to put up a sign at the circus that said: “To the Egress.” People followed the sign, thinking they were about to see some exotic animal, and suddenly found themselves in the street!!

So…back to our regulation:

Means of Egress: Ways of exit access and the doors to exit to which they lead shall be so designed and arranged as to be clearly recognizable as such. Hangings or draperies shall not be placed over exit doors or otherwise so located as to obscure any exit. Mirrors shall not be placed on exit doors. Mirrors shall not be placed in or adjacent to any exit in such a manner as to confuse the direction of the exit.

That was the old regulation. Here is a proposal for the new regulation:

Exit routes: An exit door must be free of signs or decorations that obscure its visibility.

That’s it. From 76 words to 14. But we still might be able to make it a bit better. The words “obscure its visibility” are a little like the old gobbledygook.” How about: “Don’t put up anything that makes it harder to see the exit door.”

I’m sure the folks at OSHA could go me one better on this. But the point is, as soon as people begin to understand the principles of plain language, everybody will be coming up with ideas about how to write and speak more clearly.

As these examples tell you, we’re already making great progress in plain language all across government. During one of the recent storms that ripped through California, an SBA loan applicant paid a visit to the SBA disaster office. He had already filed his loan application by mail, but he wanted to double-check with someone in person. The form was so clear and so easy, he was sure he had missed a page, or filled out the wrong form.

Our Securities and Exchange Commission is also out front on plain language. SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt once said that even he can’t understand some of the industry language. And he’s one of the top minds in the industry! So he not only made plain language a requirement in his agency. He encouraged the private sector to practice it as well. We have here today with us Edward Crooke, President of Baltimore Gas and Electric. BGE was one of the first companies to take on the challenge of putting its prospectus into plain language. The customer response was so encouraging, the company made plain language the theme of their 1997 Annual Report. Now, plain language is taking hold all across the securities industry.

One brokerage firm even insists that their funds are selling better just because their language is clearer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the private sector or the public sector: customers appreciate plain language.

Today, with the President’s Memorandum, plain language literally becomes the rule, rather than the exception, in the federal government. On behalf of the President, I’m calling on every agency to make plain language a priority, and give the go-ahead to the plain language fans on the front-lines who are eager to help us speak and write more clearly to our customers.

We are talking about more than a new approach to communications. We’re talking about enduring principles of self-government. Clarity helps advance understanding. Understanding can help advance trust. And trust—especially trust in the promise of our self-government—is essential if we are to come together to solve the problems we face as a nation.

So let me conclude by illustrating once again the point of our plain language initiative. The point is not to enhance the level and facility of reading comprehension attained by the government’s interlocutors according to objectively considered contemporary standards and measures. That was the old point; the new point is to make sure you can understand us.

Thank you.