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|HOW THE US GOVERNMENT IS CONVINCING ITS EMPLOYEES TO SWITCH TO PLAIN LANGUAGE
article is based on Joanne Lockes presentation at the February 2000
Plain Language in Progress Conferencethe third biennial conference
sponsored by the Plain Language Consultants Network (not to be confused
with the Federal governments Plain Language Action Network (PLAN),
of which the author is a member. You can visit the PLAN website at www.plainlanguage.gov.
the time of your last conference in 1997, U.S. Federal employees had received
two Presidential orders about the need for clearly written regulations:
1993 Executive Order (#12866) that said, Each agency shall draft
its regulations to be simple and easy to understand, with a goal of
minimizing the potential for uncertainty and litigation arising from
such uncertainty. Not much seemed to change as a result of this
A 1995 memo to heads of Federal departments directing them to conduct
a page-by-page review of all your agency regulations now in force and
eliminate or revise those that are outdated or otherwise in need of
reform. The response to this directive was mostly to eliminate
regulations, not revise them.
But the 1997 conference attendees did learn from Joe Kimble that the Vice
Presidents Reinventing Government office was promoting plain
English. That office sent a proposal to the White House thatif signedwould
require Federal agencies to adopt a reader-friendly approach in writing
for the public. As Clarity readers know, the President signed a
formal memorandum on June 1, 1998.
language in the U.S. Federal government today
to Annetta Cheek and her committed colleagues (some call them zealots)
throughout the government, weve made real progress since the President
issued his memo in the summer of 1998. Vice President Gore put the plain
language initiative under his National Partnership for Reinventing
Government (NPR) umbrella. He realized that writing plainly would
be one sure way to make government work better and cost less.
The Vice Presidents own memo was a four-sentence plain language
is the guidance we promised when the President issued the plain language
presidential memorandum on June 1. This is a critical initiative that
is important to me. I expect you to make it happen. If you need some
help getting started, call NPR at 694-0075
the United States, the Federal agencies that routinely communicate directly
with our citizens were often the first to begin writing more plainly.
Many of these agencies started to improve their written messages before
1998. Now they are often the most involved in plain language efforts perhaps
because they see the payoff quickly. For example:
The VBA developed a program called Reader-Focused Writing
(described in Clarity 43). In June 1999, they began training 9,000
of their 11,000 employees in this program. The easy-to-understand, more
plainly written letters they now send result in fewer calls to the VBA
and more correct responses to their requests for information from our
The SSA routinely corresponds with most past and present workers in the
United States. When its message is understood, SSA receives fewer follow-up
phone calls and office visits. Therefore, the agency is providing:
Language training and a desk reference for all employees.
written Social Security Statements that give an estimate
of how much a persons Social Security benefit will be. More than
125 million workers will receive this statement annually. This new notice
won the Vice Presidents Plain Language Award in October 1999.
a sampling of what some other Federal agencies are doing with plain language.
The EPA is investing $150,000 in a Stylewriter
pilot to Americanize a writing tutorial and test an editor software program.
of the Interior
This department has led the way in publishing many final rules in plain
language. Its employees have volunteered their time and expertise to train
hundreds of staff in other Federal agencies to write clearly.
of Personnel Management
This agency that manages Federal employees is taking a lead role in plain
language. For instance, every year OPM has an open season for Federal
employees to join or switch their health-insurance plans. In 1999, OPMs
health-insurance booklets clearly stated they are beginning to use plain
language to help employees understand their options. This February, the
OPM Director sent out memos telling her staff, Write regulations
in plain language. Otherwise, I will return them.
for big improvement from these agencies:
Care Finance Administration
The agency that is responsible for Medicare and Medicaid is making sure
its letters, pamphlets, and website pages are written in plain language.
The IRS promises that instructions for filing taxes will soon be drastically
The department is working to have its Student Financial Aid forms online
and plainer this year. In their current version, these forms
are so difficult to complete that high schools across the nation routinely
offer evening sessions to help parents figure them out.
PLAN members agree that persuading folks to write Federal regulations
in plain language is our most daunting challenge. But we do have some
brave feds who have published some excellent examples, and who are asking
others to comment on these early efforts to use plain language in regulations.
Department of Transportation
In December 1998 the department published a test proposal
using revolutionary new format techniques, that includes:
Blank half-lines between paragraphs
Bullets in preamble summaries
Safety & Health Administration
In November 1999 the OSHA published a regulation on its ergonomics program
that was written in plain language.
Office of the Federal Register
In the past, regulation writers used the style and format that was accepted
by the Federal Register. This was usually very difficult to read and understand.
In the past year or so, however, this Office has been encouraging agencies
to experiment with new, easier-to-read format techniques. They are also
inviting comments on the regulations that use these techniques, and they
are planning to redesign the printed format of the Federal Register this
Food and Drug Administration
FDA, my agency, published the codified part of the Veterinary Feed Directive
in the summer of 1999. This was our first plainly written document published
in the Federal Register. FDA now has dozens of plainly written regulations
and guidance documents heading for publication.
American Bar Association
NPR was also delighted to receive a copy of the ABAs August 1999
resolution urging all Federal agencies to use plain language in
writing regulations, as a means of promoting the understanding of legal
The Office of Management and Budget
This Office could have a major impact government-wide on increasing the
number of plainly written documents in the Federal Register, since many
Federal employees perceive OMB to be the most influential trendsetter
in this area. They now have a task force working to revise information
collection regulations into plain language, and they are revising
some of their (formerly very bureaucratic) policy memos.
& Drug Administration
had the most fun in making Plain Language come alive for our staffeven
though we had to tackle regulation-writers, lawyers, and scientists all
at the same time. Heres a quick look at what we did:
started with an action plan, as required by the Vice President, and
we made sure FDAs leadership supported it. We recently revised
the plan to include more recognition of employee efforts to write clearly.
We held an agency-wide slogan contest, to familiarize staff with the
plain language initiative. We received ideas from more than 160 employees.
The winner received a day off. His slogan"FDA Plain Language:
Its the Write Idea"became the theme for our poster
to promote plain language. The poster then became the home page of FDAs
plain language intranet site. We use the site to answer questions about
plain language, provide links to the NPR Plain Language site, and to
post examples of plainly written FDA documents.
leaders strongly support this initiative. In 1999, the Commissioner
wrote an "all hands" memo to staff, stating "My goal
is simple. I want everyone who receives an FDA Federal Register
document or information about complying with an FDA requirement to understand
what they read the first time they read it." She also videotaped
an introduction to FDA plain language training sessions, offering encouragement
and stating her expectation that FDA will succeed in writing documents
FDA staff have been given the opportunity to attend a wide variety of
training in plain writing. More
than 800 have already participated. We have used in-house staff, volunteer
trainers from other agencies, contractors, and a training video. Workshops
on writing regulations are being held in the FDA centers. Last spring,
FDA sponsored a satellite broadcast, available nationwide, that gave
an overview of how to write plainly.
is piloting an editor software program and comparing experiences with
other agencies that are testing it.
Clarity readers know, the Vice President rewards Federal employees
who take poorly written documents and rewrite them plainly and clearly.
He calls his award the "No Gobbledygook Award." He selects the winners
himself and, during the first year of the contest, personally presented
the award at monthly White House ceremonies. FDA won the award three
times in 1999, more than any other agency so far.
is not to say that every single FDA employee is committed to the plain
language initiative. Some staff simply resist change. Others think plain
language is a fine idea, but believe weve managed just fine so far
without it. They arent convinced its worth the time and effort
necessary to master this writing style. But we are winning converts every
worked best in FDA (and other agencies, Im sure) is finding the
champions, the true believersparticularly among attorneys, regulation
writers, and senior staff at all levels of the agency. What also helps
is making good examples readily available to share with others. We do
this on our website.
other governments help
am happy to be here to learn how to continue and accelerate our successes.
It will be an incentive to the U.S. writers to know that other nations
are working toward the same goal of plainly written documents. We are
especially interested in our trading partners, such as Canada, New Zealand
and Australia, and members of the European Union.
learned that Sweden has official language-experts assigned to all the
government departments. So we are looking forward to January 2001, when
Sweden has its turn to be in charge of the EU for six months. They hope
to use this opportunity to try to influence other EU countries to write
their international documents in plain, less bureaucratic language.
we look beyond the current administration, we are hoping to build communities
of practice around common challenges to good customer service. We believe
that certain initiativessuch as plain languagebegun during
this administration make so much good business sense that it will not
be difficult to sell them to the next administration.
are also working hard to get the word out that government reinvention
is making a difference and that plain language is a bipartisan effort
the American people deserve. Members of the Plain Language Action Network
are pitching our story to the trade press in the science and legal communities
and to major media, such as The New York Times. We believe that
once the public demands clear, understandable writing, well have
a much easier time persuading all our colleagues in the government to
Locke was selected be FDAS Plain Language
Coordinator in 1998. She joined FDA in 1994, where she has been a Policy
Analyst in the Office of the Commissioners Executive Secretariat.
note: The National Partnership for Reinventing Government is scheduled
to cease operations in January, after several very successful years that
we have described in this article and in previous issues.
published in Clarity, December 2000.
Clarity is the journal of ClarityA Movement to Simplify Legal
Case Study 2: Environmental
Case Study 3:
Borough of Sutton