How a New Bill Would Advance Plain Language in Government

Clarity is in the eye of the beholder. A new bill reinvigorating plain language in government acknowledges the importance of bringing the voice of customers into account when evaluating the effectiveness of agency communications. 

Plain language advocates across the government are eyeing bipartisan legislation that the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee introduced on July 21. The Clear and Concise Content Act of 2022 builds upon the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which laid a foundation to “improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” In many agencies across the federal government, The Plain Language Writing Act of 2010 has become dormant, relegated to a compliance activity, only occurring on paper and not achieving the intended goals. Revamping the rules around clear communication will not only help more people move past government jargon to access the information and resources they need, but will help build trust in a government that is built to serve.  

The Clear and Concise Content Act of 2022 would expand plain language legislation, shifting it from a compliance-based exercise to a set of activities driving measurable impact for customers. If passed, it is meant to prompt critical updates to the 2010 legislation:

The Takeaways

  1. Expand agency actions
    • Require plain writing in all covered content made available by the agency within one year of enactment
    • Solicit feedback from the public on compliance with the Act and clarity of content, along with any data required by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to measure the effectiveness of plain language efforts from the customer perspective
    • Designate a senior official to oversee the implementation of the Act, not lower than the Assistant Secretary or equivalent
  1. Facilitate government-wide progress
    • OMB is to establish procedures and policies for agencies to review and update covered content. 
    • OMB is to develop qualitative and quantitative metrics by which an agency will be measured for compliance with the requirements to:
      • Identify content covered by the legislation
      • Draft covered content in plain writing
      • Solicit and incorporate public feedback and data to improve public engagement with the agency
    • OMB is to require agencies to routinely test the creation or modification of covered content, solicit public feedback and collect data
  2. Clarify and expand applicability
    • The revised “covered content” terminology expands the previous “covered documents” definition, acknowledging the digital age and the central role of agency websites and digital channels in customer communications. Previous language of “covered documents” allows for narrow interpretation, focusing on paper or electronic documents, letters, publications, forms, notices or instructions. 
  3. Refine plain writing definition to acknowledge diverse audience needs
    • Plain writing is still “writing that is clear, concise, well-organized and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.” However, the proposed legislation highlights that “intended audience” includes those who “may be disabled, may not be proficient in English or may otherwise be disadvantaged or traditionally underserved.”

Why It Matters

This legislation would give a boost to long-time plain language advocates working to transform government from the inside out. The legislative updates give customers a figurative seat at the table and agency plain language advocates a megaphone.

By far the biggest difference is that federal agencies will be required to hear from customers — getting valuable feedback on how effectively the agency is communicating. For agencies not already doing so, this transformative step facilitates two-way communication and drives agencies to have a conversation with the people they serve, specifically on message clarity. 

Communication is the foundation of trust. A lack of content clarity and not using plain language to communicate creates barriers to equitable experiences with government, resulting in low trust levels and poor customer outcomes. 

Over the past several years, we’ve seen refreshed focus and new mandates generating momentum around improving customer service and equitable government. Plain language is at the heart of true progress in customer experience and accelerates advances towards equity.

The number one rule communicators have is: know your audience. I’ve served as a professional communicator in the federal government, military and private sector. In large, complex organizations like a federal agency, knowing your audience can be difficult without an intentional plan. The proposed legislation creates a framework for agencies government-wide to leverage modern customer listening tools to understand communication effectiveness from the perspective of customers. These additional insights empower agencies to prioritize customer needs when planning, creating and delivering effective customer content that is easy to find, understand and use. 

Jill Leyden is a former federal government customer experience leader. She led organizational change at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office where she served as the first customer experience administrator. Jill drove customer-centric transformation to better serve trademark customers around the world. Her public service includes 9 years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and she continues to serve in the Reserves. Jill is a principal industry advisor at Qualtrics, an experience management company helping public and private sector organizations create breakthrough experiences across the globe.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on unsplash.com

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