Advocates of the Plain Writing Act prod federal agencies to keep it simple

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Source: WashingtonPost.com

By: Lisa Rein

Posted: April 6th, 2012

Federal agencies must report their progress this week in complying with the Plain Writing Act, a new decree that government officials communicate more conversationally with the public.

Speaking plainly, they ain’t there yet.

Which leaves, in the eyes of some, a basic and critical flaw in how the country runs. “Government is all about telling people what to do,” said Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker from Falls Church and longtime evangelist for plain writing. “If you don’t write clearly, they’re not going to do it.”

But advocates such as Cheek estimate that federal officials have translated just 10 percent of their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” as the law requires.

Official communications must now employ the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. “Addressees” must now become, simply, “you.” Clunky coinages like “incentivizing” (first known usage 1970) are a no-no. The Code of Federal Regulations no longer goes by the abbreviation CFR.

But with no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part, advocates worry that plain writing has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list, like many another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress. They say many agencies have heeded the 2010 law merely by appointing officials, creating working groups and setting up Web sites.

What’s more, the law’s demand for clearer language seems like make-work to skeptics who say there is no money to pay for the promotion of clarity and that the status quo is the best path to accuracy.

“It’s definitely an ongoing battle,” said Glenn Ellmers, plain-writing coordinator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’re trying pretty hard. But when you’re talking about something as complex as a nuclear power plant, you can’t get around specialized language. The really technical people take a little pride in using it.”

As a concession to them, the commission is simplifying only the cover letters of plant inspection reports, while leaving intact the highly technical and all-but-impenetrable text of the actual documents.

“Part of this is we have a change in culture,” said Ed Burbol, the Defense Department’s plain-language coordinator, who oversees two full-time staff members assigned to promoting clearer communication. “We’re going to encounter resistance.”

A retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Burbol acknowledged that “some people here can write very well and some people can’t write at all,” a problem he attributes to the large number of service members who return to work as civilians.

Consider the next sentence: “This subpart identifies those products in which the Administrator has found an unsafe condition as described in Sec. 39.1 and, as appropriate, prescribes inspections and the conditions and limitations, if any, under which those products may continue to be operated.”

And here’s the revision of the sentence, a Federal Aviation Administration guideline, by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language: “Airworthiness directives specify inspections you must carry out, conditions and limitations you must comply with, and any actions you must take to resolve an unsafe condition.”

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