“In just a few more years, the current homogenized voice of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.” – The Cluetrain Manifesto
“In just a few more years” – if only that were true. Unfortunately, this quote was written more than ten years ago, and we’re still plagued with bureaucratic jargon, in both the public and private sectors. I got to thinking about this book, and this quote in particular, when I saw that the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs finalized guidance for the use of plain language in government communication. This memo comes six months after the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into law, 13 years after President Clinton issued his “Plain Language in Government Writing” memorandum, and more than 40 years since President Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”
As Joel Siegel at ABC News first reported late last year after the law went into effect, the challenge of changing “government-speak” to “human-speak” isn’t a new one, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t be hailing a new, similar law in another ten years. After all, agencies will not receive any additional funding for this, nor will they be penalized for ignoring the guidance or rewarded for improving the clarity of their writing. While Siegel highlighted some of the changes he’s already seen, my guess is that we’ll see an initial surge of revisions that get a lot of media coverage, followed by a majority of agencies falling back into the way things have always been done. Unfortunately, getting the government to write in plain language isn’t something that can be solved by law or by technology. It’s not as simple as creating an app or telling people “do it because I said so.” Here’s why:
- Change is HARD. From my previous post, “in the government, leadership and, consequently, leadership priorities are constantly changing as administrations change. Because of this, employees suffer from change fatigue (if you don’t like how your department was reorganized, wait a year and it’ll change again), middle managers don’t invest in the change themselves, and leaders all too often push forward with their own agendas and goals, current organizational culture be damned.”
- No Reward, No Punishment. Government employees aren’t just going to start writing in plain English because you told them to. Think of the alcoholic who takes Antabuse to punish himself if he takes a drink or the dog who gets a treat for sitting on command. Positive behaviors need to be positively reinforced and negative ones negatively reinforced. This is behavior modification 101.
- History Repeats Itself. The government employee or contractor knows this isn’t their first plain language rodeo. They know that we’ve been down this road before. What makes this time different? They’re asking, “why should I invest myself into this effort when I know it’s going to fail just like all of the other times?”
- Too Much Training Before, Not Enough Training After. I think most government employees aren’t even aware that they’re writing in bureaucratic gobbledygook. For years and years, they’ve had this writing style drilled into them by their bosses. I work for a government contractor and can tell you that on more than one occasion, I’ve received feedback like, “we can’t use contractions in this document – that’s not professional” and “try the word ‘leverage’ instead of ‘use’ – it makes us sound smarter.” After years of feedback like this, you actually lose the ability to speak and write like a human being. It’s not that the government is being malicious and purposely writing this way – it’s that many government employees literally do not have the ability to write for the average person anymore. The Plain Writing Act should make Plain Language training a mandatory requirement where these employees (and their managers) have to re-learn what good writing is.
- Legal Hurdles. Would the world end if the lawyers were the ones writing the first drafts of these policies and regulations and then let the communications professionals edit their work, instead of the other way around? For too long, communications professionals like me have had to painstakingly translate highly technical content into readable English, only to see it get edited by the lawyers into the very thing I was trying to avoid. Again, this goes back to the reward/punishment argument earlier though. Put out a new document in plain English and get sued? That lawyer is in a heap of trouble. Put out a new document in bureaucratic and legal jargon so no one understands? Nothing happens. I don’t blame the lawyers in the Office of General Counsel – I’d try my hardest to cover all my legal bases too!
- Good Writing is Still Considered a Nice-to-have. When budgets get cut, who goes – the communications/public affairs guy in the front office or the engineer in Operations? Say what you will about the government, but they’re almost always focused on the accomplishing the mission of their organization. Things like communications, strategic planning, and change management are often viewed as extraneous, “nice-to-have” things – not core components of the mission. Until the agencies view plain writing as integral to their ability to achieve their mission, I’m afraid it will never get any long-term traction.
President Obama took a step in the right direction with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, but so did President Nixon and President Clinton. That first step is the easiest. The really difficult part comes now. Can this Administration succeed where past administrations failed? Can they integrate plain writing into the culture and mission of the government and lay the foundation of change? Actually, this doesn’t sound all that different than what we’re trying to accomplish with Gov 2.0, does it?
Here’s the Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010
Good analysis! I do think that you get into a style of writing and you forget how to write for citizens. When I was an intern, after law school and a public policy degree beginning, I drafted a letter for a department director. His assistant read it first and asked me why I was ” using so many words.” I laughed and I never forgot that advice! Generally, I think folks are rewarded for writing in a certain style and, as you say, receive no training to do otherwise. I am also aware of legislation, etc., that was poorly written for the same reason. It’s definitely time to consider our written communication. Thanks for the post!
We need to keep in mind that plain language does not always work very well in the legal and regulatory world. Court records are full of law suits filed and won because the language in a contract or ad was ambiguous. Congress not uncommonly starts out with clear simple plain language legislation with reasonably clear intent but room for different interpetations. Inevitably, someone violates the spirit of the law while complying with the letter. The legislation is redrafted with less wiggle room and more legalistic language but still reasonably understandable and the process repeats itself until finally Congress enacts a 5000 page statute on how to process pickles for interstate trade that only a lawyer with a degree in biochemistry can understand.
Too often the very members of the public who complain the loudest about the lack of plain language in government documents are the first to exploit, or invent, loopholes to evade intent when the documents are written in anything less than the most precise legalisms.
Thanks Terri! I think that might be the hardest thing about making this change. We’ve been trained for years to write and speak “professionally.” Reversing, or at least adapting, this style is going to take a long time, and require multiple leaders at all levels of an organization to adopt this philosophy as well. Although, as Peter said in his comment, it will take just one or two high profile lawsuits to ruin it for everyone. Will be interesting to see how this law stands up in court.
I mean I know that it’s going to be hard work but I really think that it can be done. Also maybe this is something that’s grandfathered in so it’s not a huge lift in the present day.
Congress and the U.S. government will not exist in their current state decades from today.
This is a really good overview of all the challenges facing this new policy. I think your last point really cuts to the heart of the matter — good writing just isn’t considered a critical skill to an agency’s mission. I also think that jargon-y language often gets conflated with good professional language because everyone else is writing/speaking that way. If you’re a new employee or a contractor trying to do business, it’s in your interest to try to fit in with that style of communication (even if you know it’s bad writing).
I’m going to keep shouting this idea until somebody hears me:
Get college students (undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate) and citizens to do this work!
Incentivize it, pay them, do whatever it takes to crowd-source this thing…have the agency folks serve as uber-editors…but eventually turn this process over to the public once you have people you trust. Post it all on wikis and let folks whittle away until it’s great.
It’s the only way to accelerate the process….
I think its important to draw a distinction between legal language/regulation and information for public consumption. Legal jargon is onerous irrespective of sector, and legislation can have a number of unintended consequences hinging in things like “must” and “shall”.
To me the biggest driver of unfriendly rhetoric is that is is rarely written for the user experience. Government is often guilty of failing to ask, “Who is the intended audience and why should they care?” In some cases governments sheer span dictates an answer like, “The general public”, which drives lowest common denominator writing that is all things to all people and nothing to no one. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that many communications are written and edited by an army of other people, with negative consequences for things like unified voice and effective storytelling.
This has spawned a whole cottage industry of punditry in which the David Brooks and Paul Krugmans of the world try and tell people what 100 government employees really mean when they say something in 1200 pages.
We also need to remember that “plain language” means different things to different people. I write budget narratives aimed at OMB examiners and appropriations clerks that end up in our publicly available Congressional Budget Justification. Despite my best effforts to make them readable for everyone, I must often come down on the side of communicating as one budget wonk to another in order to be clearly understood by my target audiance. I do not always have the luxury of spelling out the difference between BA and OA, or explaining multiyear vs one year vs no-year money. The target audiance knows and understands these terms and the associated jargon which develops in any profession to facilitate quick precise communication. The documents should certainly be available to the public but they are not the target audiance and probably will not consider the writing to be “plain language”. But it will be easily understood by any budgeteer.
This doesn’t have to take years to implement. Using words like “leverage” is learned behavior. It’s been rewarded while the use of clear English has been punished. Agency directors should tell their staff that they are now authorized to speak like human beings. They need to stress that govvies are writing for citizens – that’s their audience – not fellow bureaucrats.
Plain language is language that it meant for its intended audience. So if you’re a budget wonk writing to another budget wonk in language you both understand, you’re writing in (budget wonk) plain language. If you are not writing to another budget wonk, then you must write in language that your intended readers will understand with one reading and can easily locate what they’re looking for within the document or webpage.
I also wonder if unclear government writing is somehow hindered by the glacial pace at which new technologies are adopted. Take blogging for example – if you go back and read the archives of various popular blogs, it’s apparent that many authors take a while to get better, even though I struggle to put my finger on the difference between blog entry, op-ed, short form writing piece or journal entry.
I’d also posit that it’s a vicious cycle – I read hundreds of articles a week but every once in a while I read Ta-nehisi Coates and find synapses in my brain firing, “Oh right, that’s what eloquence looks like”. If people today are inundated with jargony email and bad writing, that’s got to have a chilling effect on the collective product.
I think that information written for the public should be written in plain English and material written for specific audiences such as policy wonks, budget administrators or legal staff should be written in the jargon used by the specific audience. Jargon is often useful- think about doctors communicating about parts of the body or attorneys discussing particular regulations or – even government administrators using the initials of the particular agencies.
I think the key here is that we keep our final audience in mind when we write – as Peter said, he writes a lot of budgeteers, so jargony stuff may be fine, but….what if what he writes is reviewed by those budgeteers and then ultimately posted to the website for the general public? The budget guys may be the direct audience for Peter, but the final audience is the general public. In a situation like that, Peter’s writing won’t change until those budget guys start realizing that they need to change what they’re asking for of Peter.
Plain language is ok–as long as you don’t ask my area to do it, and if you do, we will insist we are already on it.
These changes won’t be made from the top down. Change will depend on us. Those of us who are plain language proponents will have to be enthusiastic and determined. I have been working with my agency’s technical staff for 4 years to improve the readability for our general publications. I have also developed good working relationships with OGC so I can call them and talk to them about changes I want to make and their legal ramifications. All publications here go through editorial review after clearance. We’ve taken a hard look at what really constitutes our audiences. We used to use the term “general audience” but on further review, we have found that our audiences are specifically Congress, the crop insurance industry, extension agents, insurance agents, and farmers. We decide who we are writing to and write to that audinece. I do have disagreements and arguments with the technical experts at my agency and the lawyers but we work through them to get the best information to the audience in the most understandable way. It also helps that I run my agency’s booth at conferences too. I talk with our customers and ask them about their experiences with our publications and take that back to the agency. We, as communications experts, need to use our best asset and communicate with our agencies as well as the public. I understand it’s hard to change a generally accepted mindset, I’ve had my battles, but it pays off in the end. We have many more people coming to us for the information they need and our publications have helped alot of people. We share those experiences and stories with our management as proof of why this change is important. It is a real challenge in government to change to a new way of writing but it can be done if we only but try.
I’m all for CLEAR writing including charts when necessary. Sometimes they convey the message more clearly than words do.
Thanks fro the great comment Carol. We’ve also found that charts and graphics really help people’s understanding. They’re also a great way to highlight the most important information to draw our customers in to read the rest of the publication.
Plain language fights precisely those legal ambiguities that some posters here see in our documents. Because of the many legal interpretations of “shall”, for instance (an easy target), it’s now pretty much meaningless in legal drafting. When we write plainly, our readers understand what we intended to say. That’s important when we’re interpreting statues for a lay audience, writing a briefing note for senior management, or e-mailing a colleague.in another department to describe our own programs. None of them understands the jargon. Why not treat all of them (and their time) with respect and write plainly to everyone? You’ll get better at it the more you do it.
There’s a conference on Plain Language taking place in Stockholm, June 9 – 11.
Why is this important ?
Other countries have implemented plain language and will be sharing their best practices / lessons learned. If other countries can do this, and report back on it, then surely so can the USA.
Here are some of the presentations to inspire you:
BTW, I’ll be going to the Plain Language Conference and self funding it. I’m staying with friends, and my family will join me in Stockholm later and it will be an educational and recreational time.
If there is interest I’d be happy to post a blog on the Plain conference.
@Joy – I would love to see a blog post(s) about what you learn at the Plain Conference! I think @GovLoop would also be interested in working with you to highlight those blog posts on GovLoop as well. I wish I had more notice on that – I would have totally tried to work the bigwigs here to get approved to attend that one! 🙂
Steve is right on @Joy we’d love to hear any insights that come out of that conference. You can ping me directly at [email protected]
I definitely agree. I think I am living the fight everyday. As the lead for customer service and public inquiries, I have to deal with those who speak another language–common English. I seem to be able to communicate well on several levels on the phone or email, but let that inquiry become elevated for some reason and all communication where rapport is established and maintained is suddenly lost. That writing becomes artificial and stilted (we call it formal). Part of our resistance then is to be seen as anything less than average. We have to maintain our professional status but at the same time, we can’t lose contact with our audience whoever they might be.
Steve – a great summary of the problem agencies face in changing the culture so thousands of federal employees start to write in plain English. You are right, just running training workshops for some employees won’t change the culture. Here’s why most plain English writing courses fail and are a waste of time and money.
1. People think plain English sounds dull and boring (it isn’t)
2. Understanding clear-writing principles doesn’t mean people write clearly
3. Organizations only train junior staff
4. Trainees don’t get support from their managers
5. Poor writing is the standard style
6. The culture of the organization dominates the way people communicate
7. Business and government need to measure writing standards
8. Writing standards must vary for audience and writing tasks
9. Organizations must set writing standards
10. Training must be personal and continuous
You can read more about these problems at: http://www.squidoo.com/business-writing-courses-writing-courses
However, I’d like to offer a ray of hope. You said there was no technology solution. Well we think there is. We designed StyleWriter the plain English editing software. We let anyone download a 14-day trial to test their writing for plain English. It will show any federal employee how to write.
Several Washington agencies bought 1,000-user licenses of our prevision edition and we have now released StyleWriter 4. I’m happy to set up a free trial for any agency.
I’ll also happily send you a free copy to review.
Any federal employee can email me on: [email protected]