Bring On the Plain Writing Act!

It’s looking more and more promising that Congress will pass the Plain Writing Act (S574), the law that so many have championed for so long. The Act passed the House in March by a vote of 386 to 33; and it’s being considered in the Senate now. If it is enacted, get ready, web communicators. The pressure will be on to “fix” all that bad content. Woot! It’s about time!

What’s not to like? The goals of plain language advocates are simple. When people read a government document, form, website – anything in writing – they should be able to find what they want, understand what they find, and act accordingly. Aren’t those the goals of every communicator? But government communications fail more often than not.

Better writing, better service.

The Clearmark and Wondermark Awards were presented at the end of April. In case you missed them, the Clearmark Awards recognized really good examples of plain writing. The Wondermark Awards recognized – well, good examples of bad writing. The co-winners of Clearmark Awards in the government web category were the Department of Health and Human Service’s Healthfinder Quick Guide and Gresham, Oregon’s city website. What made them winners? In both cases, the teams did a lot of testing with potential readers. They kept re-working the words until they got it right. Take a look at both sites – I think you’ll see they achieved those 3 important objectives of plain writing.

Sadly, for every well-written web page, there are millions and millions of government web pages written in gobbly-gook. You can reorganize them, reformat them, make them pretty – but if the words aren’t right, it’s still gobbly-gook. You’ve got to get the words right.

The Federal Web Managers Council say it in their recent report, 2010 Progress Report – Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government: “Our top goal is to improve online government by writing, editing, and delivering content that is clear, understandable, and engaging. Plain language writing – even more than technology – is critical to help the public easily complete their online tasks.” And last fall, when GSA did a survey asking respondents to choose 3 things that would improve government websites, the number one response (chosen by 62%) was: write in plain language. I know you government communicators get it. You want to do the right thing. What you lack is the mandate.

S574 says: “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” If the Plain Writing Act passes, you’ve got your mandate. You can say “no” to gobbly-gook. You’ll have powerful justification for more funding to train your writers and to do usability testing to make sure citizens can find, understand, and act on what they read on government websites.

Will it be tough to fix all the problems? Sure. Will there be a cost? Yep. There’s a lot to fix. It will require a thoughtful, long-term, cross-government strategy and careful management. But this is really important. Government has to communicate with its citizens effectively to serve effectively, and we don’t. Desire and good intentions haven’t done the trick. Maybe a law will. Bring it on!

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Has anyone given any thought as to how we could marshall resources beyond government employees to accomplish the gargantuan task of re-writing those “millions and millions of government web pages written in gobbly-gook?”

Throw it on a wiki and let writing professionals, students, academics, etc. have at it?

Candi Harrison

Ooo – interesting idea, Andrew. Govt has trouble accepting “volunteer” work. But maybe in this day of participation and engagement and open govt, it’s time for a change. I’ll be curious to see what others think.

Stephen Peteritas

I like where you are headed with that Andy. I mean some type of grant program for a university or even several universities to teach students how to write plainly with live extremely important examples.

For the most part these are the people we need to understand the government as they are the new generation of leaders and more importantly voters. Not a bad idea at all to let them cultivate the change as long as it’s monitored.