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Plain Talk in Washington

By Dana Howard Botka

Manager, Customer Communications, WA State Department of Labor and Industries

Shortly after taking office as Washington state’s new governor in January 2005, Gov. Christine Gregoire announced she soon would be requiring all state agencies to use “Plain Talk” principles when they communicated with citizens. In the coming months, the governor’s staff expects to develop an executive order, set guidelines and goals, and develop a time-table for training staff in the state’s 45 agencies.

“Plain Talk” is Washington state’s current lingo for “plain language,” adopted from the term used for a plain language initiative at the state’s Department of Labor and Industries and, later, at its Ecology Department.) In Olympia, however, state employees have been untangling unwieldy legalese since the mid–1990s, starting with rules and gradually moving into form letters and web pages. Usability testing with customers to ensure the effectiveness of plain talk rewrites has been integral to all of these efforts. And, slowly but surely, progress is being made.

“Washington is at the forefront among state governments in delivering plain language to its citizens and to state employees, “ says Dr. Janice (Ginny) Redish, a Harvard-trained linguist and leading usability professional, owner of Redish & Associates, Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland. “The pioneering efforts of many people in Washington state government have brought plain language to many types of documents.

The plain language movement in Washington’s state government began in the mid–1990s, influenced by consultants from the University of Washington’s strong technical communications program. It picked up speed in 1997 when newly–elected Governor Gary Locke issued an executive order requiring rules developed for the Washington Administrative Code to be written and organized so they may be easily understood and used by people who are affected by them.”

So far, at least five state agencies have taken up the cause in varying degrees—some targeting troublesome form letters, some focusing on training, and others on revamping their websites so they are easier for customers to use.

State officials report that short, simple customer messages tend to result in fewer mistakes, fewer hotline calls and customers who are less frustrated with their government.

Advancing the plain language cause even further has been Washington state’s active “digital government” effort, for which it has been frequently honored. The state’s head start on comprehensive agency websites and features like online license applications and payment systems gave it an edge on figuring out what worked for customers.

Clear measures aren’t always possible, but the best example comes from the state’s Department of Revenue. The agency estimates it has collected approximately $5 million in extra revenue since rewriting one explanatory tax collection letter in 2003.

Plain language activity in Washington state government since the mid–90s

  • 1994: The Olympia Writers Roundtable, a group of state agency writers, invites plain language specialist, Dr. Ginny Redish, to speak in Olympia. Dr. Redish founded the Document Design Center at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. in 1979 and had set up one of the first independent usability test labs in the country. Representatives from the departments of Ecology, Retirement Systems, and Labor and Industries bring the message back to their agencies, where workshops and rewrite projects begin at varying levels.

  • 1995-96: First clear rule-writing classes and projects begin, starting with the Department of Labor and Industries. Other agencies begin contracting for the class.

  • 1997: Newly-elected Washington Governor Gary Locke issues an Executive Order on Regulatory Improvement, requiring state agencies to use, among other things, “Plain language, whereby rules are written and organized so they may be easily understood and used by people who are affected by them.”

  • 1999: The state’s workplace safety program, “WISHA,” (housed in the Department of Labor and Industries) wins legislative appropriation to write the state’s massive set of basic workplace safety rules into easy–to–read language available to businesses on CD or online. Intensive stakeholder involvement and customer usability testing are included in the project. Winner of many regional and national awards.

  • 2001: Department of Labor and Industries launches the “Plain Talk” initiative, promising then–Gov. Locke that it would rewrite into plain language 100 unclear, high–volume form letters in one year. The project creates 15 staff teams who work with a plain language writer and rewrite more than 115 customer documents, testing many of them for usability with typical customers. Winner of the Governor’s Customer Service Award, November 2003.

  • 2003: Washington Department of Revenue launches “Straight Talk,” training many employees and rewriting 250 customer letters into plain language in one year. The rewrite of one tax collection letter has yielded the state an additional $5 million to date and won a Governor’s Award for Quality Performance in 2004.

  • 2003: Washington Department of Ecology launches “Plain Talk,” training a core of in-house plain language experts, who now regularly help programs create clear technical documents.

  • 2003: Washington Department of Licensing rewrites one letter and finds that its hotline calls are reduced by 95 percent. Winner of the 2004 Governor’s Award for Quality Performance.

  • 2003: Washington Department of Labor and Industries launches a two-year project to redesign and rewrite its website into an easy-to-read and navigate site. The agency undertakes intensive usability testing and many staff were trained in the process. (Wins Distinguished Technical Communication Award from Society of Technical Communication, 2005.)

  • 2004: Washington Department of Personnel begins project to write its brand new civil service rules into plain language. Initial usability testing finds that customers have difficulty understanding rules written in the traditional format. The agency creates short, straightforward questions and answers that help users find the information they need to know.

  • 2004: Clear rule-writing and Writing for the Web classes offered by the Washington Department of Personnel. They are in demand, along with many other plain language courses for state employees.

  • 2004: Department of Information Systems launches its rebuilt “Access Washington,” the state’s home page and gateway to hundreds of online government services. The agency takes a year to study customers and conduct usability tests on its navigation and plain language rewrites. The effort is followed by web redesigns and rewrites in several additional state agencies.

  • March 2005: Newly elected Governor Christine Gregoire issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to adopt principles of “plain talk” so all letters, applications and instructions are written in a language that is understandable to citizens, instead of bureaucratic jargon.