It’s been four years since the Plain Writing Act was signed into law. Still, many Americans aren’t aware that government documents are supposed to clear and easy to understand. And an alarming number of government writers don’t have the resources they need to achieve this goal.
As someone who provides writing training to government biologists, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the Act and its consequences, to discover WHY government writers need this training. Here’s what I found:
1) It’s the law. However, exactly what that means is unclear. The Act itself precludes its provisions from scrutiny and refuses consequences for non-compliance.
SEC. 6. JUDICIAL REVIEW AND ENFORCEABILITY.
(a) JUDICIAL REVIEW.
—There shall be no judicial review of compliance or noncompliance with any provision of this Act.
—No provision of this Act shall be construed to create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by any administrative or judicial action.
I’m not a lawyer, but this language seems to say that government agencies can’t be taken to court for failing to comply with the Plain Writing Act. Still, it doesn’t mean that government agencies can’t be sued for failing to write plainly. To understand the distinction, keep reading.
2) The Act does not define specific features of plain writing. Instead, it directs federal agencies to appoint officials to decide what plain writing looks like for their agency, to train employees so they can comply with the officials’ guidance, and to establish websites and reports communicating that guidance to employees and the public.
This provides a lot of needed latitude. The Department of the Treasury uses language differently than the Department of Energy who writes to a different audience than the Department of Education who writes about different topics than the Department of Agriculture, and so on and so forth.
But it also creates a burden of responsibility. There is no one standard for plain writing. There is an agency standard for plain writing. In other words, the Act passes the buck. Each agency in the federal government is now responsible for creating, maintaining, and enforcing a plain writing program as well as for explaining their procedures to the public.
3) The Act has not been tested. As of the date of this article, the Federal Government of the United States of America has not been sued for failure to comply with the Plain Writing Act. In part, that’s because the government appears to be in compliance.
The Act only requires that agencies put into place a system of guideline establishment, training, assessment, and reporting. So long as agencies do these things, they could be regarded as complying with the Act, regardless of whether the documents they produce are written plainly.
4) It’s only a matter of time. Thanks in large part to the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, plain language has become a prominent legal issue. Decisions on lawsuits in finance and healthcare regularly cite the plain language of the statute as the guiding interpretive standard.
Given that voices within and around the government have been asking for plain language guidance for more than 6 decades (see “Plain Geology” by Otis Smith, 1921; George Orwell “Politics and the English Language,” 1946; or John O’Hayre’s “Gobbledygook has Gotta Go,” 1966), the passage of the Act in 2010 could be read as the government’s attempt to protect itself against legal action.
Welcome changes have resulted. The PlainLanguage.gov website has become richer and more useful. Many agencies have developed plain language programs that are useful to their employees and that can serve as models for other agencies and organizations. (You can access a list of all agency plans as well as models here.)
But for some of us who continue to see bureaucratic jargon proliferate, we fear that –
5) – time is running out. The Act allows one year from the time of its passage for agencies to implement their own guidelines. It has now been four years, and excuses are wearing thin for the lack of resources or the need for more time to proliferate guidance and training. Before long, private citizens and non-government organizations will begin to hold our government accountable.
For government writers who are on the front line of their agencies’ decision-making and public relations, that’s a frightening thought. As a government writer, what can / should you do? First, bookmark your agency’s plain language webpage. Set aside time at least once a week to familiarize yourself with the guidance established there.
Second, bookmark PlainLanguage.gov. Visit the site once a month to see what’s new and to build your own personal resource library.
Third, download the Federal Plain Language Guidelines. Read it. Highlight relevant passages. Share it with your colleagues. Use it as you write.
Fourth, ask for training. Writing clearly is a skill that takes a lot of practice. This type of professional development yields returns far beyond its initial investment. Search out opportunities and suggest them to your supervisor, for both yourself and your office.
Four years ago, the Plain Writing Act put the wheels into motion. Now it’s time for the government and its people to keep the momentum going.
Do you need help procuring writing training for yourself or your office? Give me a call (304 283 4573) or send me an email. I offer courses online and onsite for government biologists who want to write with clarity, insight, and focus.