There’s a million witty words for bureaucratic language…. gobbledygook, gibberish, mumbo-jumbo, jargon, double-talk, bureaucratese, technobabble! There are probably so many words for it because it’s such a widespread, and exasperating, problem. Including in the government.
It’s fun to use crazy words, but it’s certainly not a best practice in terms of government efficiency. Annetta Cheek, Chair of the Government Affairs Committee for the Center for Plain Language, helped author the Federal Plain Language Report Card, which scored government agencies on their use of language that is clear and easy to understand. She spoke with Christopher Dorobek for the show DorobekINSIDER about the report’s findings and the communications implications for the government.
According to Cheek, writing simply and clearly is not an easy task, and it’s understandable that government workers often revert to industry-specific language, even in documents that are aimed at the average citizen. “I think there’s a little bit of a feeling that if it doesn’t sound governmental, it can’t be quite official,” Cheek explained.
If it’s so hard to do, is using plain language really that important? According to Cheek, in a country where we value democracy and honesty among our leadership, it’s critical that citizens can actually understand what is happening.
“If the government writes in its traditional bureaucratic, legalistic way, it’s very hard for citizens to know what’s going on in government. It’s important to government transparency that the government write clearly so that everybody can understand,” she explained. By using vague pronouns and passive voice, government officials obscure the responsible party behind what they’re saying. For the sake of transparency, it’s key to be precise about who is doing what action.
Where do we stand in terms of government language transparency? The government passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010, which mandated that agencies write in clearer language, but many agencies still don’t comply. “When I was in the government, there were a number of times when a law would be passed, and some department would say oh, it doesn’t apply to us,” she reported.
There’s a lot of room for improvement. Cheek’s two biggest suggestions for government writers are to use active voice and to shorten and simplify sentences. So, it seems like everyone’s 9th grade English teacher knew what she or he was talking about all along.
Also, it’s okay to be personal and chummy. “Don’t be afraid of pronouns. You can talk about your agency as we,” she explained. “We know that using pronouns pulls people into the document; it makes it clear you’re writing to them. They don’t have to translate.”
According to Cheek, government writers should also keep in mind their audience – which is, much of the time, the average citizen. It’s important to avoid insider jargon, so write such that your next-door neighbor would have no difficulty understanding.
Generally, Cheek is optimistic about the future of plain language in governance. “We’re getting more and more examples of really good material from the government,” she said. “It’s still a small [percentage]. It’s maybe 10%, which is a huge improvement.”
One day, government language will be clean and precise. Until then, we might be trudging through technobabble for a while to come.