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HOW THE US GOVERNMENT IS CONVINCING ITS EMPLOYEES TO SWITCH TO PLAIN LANGUAGE

This article is based on Joanne Locke’s presentation at the February 2000 Plain Language in Progress Conference—the third biennial conference sponsored by the Plain Language Consultants Network (not to be confused with the Federal government’s Plain Language Action Network (PLAN), of which the author is a member. You can visit the PLAN website at www.plainlanguage.gov.

The past

At the time of your last conference in 1997, U.S. Federal employees had received two Presidential orders about the need for clearly written regulations:

  • A 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 Order.

  • 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to “conduct a page-by-page review of all your agency regulations now in force and eliminate or revise those that are outdated or otherwise in need of reform.”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 President’s Reinventing Government office was promoting plain English. That office sent a proposal to the White House that—if signed—would 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.

Plain language in the U.S. Federal government today

Thanks to Annetta Cheek and her committed colleagues (some call them zealots) throughout the government, we’ve 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 President’s own memo was a four-sentence plain language classic:

Here 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

Early successes

In 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:

Veterans Benefits Administration
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 veterans.

Social Security Administration
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:

  • Plain Language training and a desk reference for all employees.

  • Plainly written “Social Security Statements” that give an estimate of how much a person’s Social Security benefit will be. More than 125 million workers will receive this statement annually. This new notice won the Vice President’s Plain Language Award in October 1999.
Current successes

Here’s a sampling of what some other Federal agencies are doing with plain language.

Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA is investing $150,000 in a Stylewriter pilot to Americanize a writing tutorial and test an editor software program.

Department 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.

Office 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, OPM’s 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.”

In the works

Watch for big improvement from these agencies:

Health 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.

Internal Revenue Service
The IRS promises that instructions for filing taxes will soon be “drastically improved.”

Department of Education
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.

Regulations

Most 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. For example:

Department of Transportation
In December 1998 the department published a “test” proposal using revolutionary new format techniques, that includes:

  • Staggered indentation

  • Blank half-lines between paragraphs

  • Centered headings

  • Bullets in preamble summaries

Occupational 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 year.

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 ABA’s August 1999 resolution urging all Federal agencies “to use plain language in writing regulations, as a means of promoting the understanding of legal obligations.”

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.

Food & Drug Administration

We’ve had the most fun in making Plain Language come alive for our staff—even though we had to tackle regulation-writers, lawyers, and scientists all at the same time. Here’s a quick look at what we did:

  1. We started with an action plan, as required by the Vice President, and we made sure FDA’s leadership supported it. We recently revised the plan to include more recognition of employee efforts to write clearly.

  2. 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: It’s the Write Idea"—became the theme for our poster to promote plain language. The poster then became the home page of FDA’s 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.

  3. FDA 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 plainly.

  4. 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.

  5. FDA is piloting an editor software program and comparing experiences with other agencies that are testing it.

  6. As 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.

This 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 we’ve managed just fine so far without it. They aren’t convinced it’s worth the time and effort necessary to master this writing style. But we are winning converts every day.

What’s worked best in FDA (and other agencies, I’m sure) is finding the champions, the true believers—particularly 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.

How other governments help

I 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.

We 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.

What about tomorrow?

As 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 initiatives—such as plain language—begun during this administration make so much good business sense that it will not be difficult to sell them to the next administration.

We 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, we’ll have a much easier time persuading all our colleagues in the government to deliver it.


Joanne Locke was selected be FDA’S Plain Language Coordinator in 1998. She joined FDA in 1994, where she has been a Policy Analyst in the Office of the Commissioner’s Executive Secretariat.

Late 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.

Article published in Clarity, December 2000.
Clarity
is the journal of Clarity—A Movement to Simplify Legal Language.


Case Study 2: Environmental Protection Agency

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