Plain Language, Practical Leadership

Young Government Leaders (YGL) and GovLoop present the NextGen Public Service Awards for superior public service and achievement. The 5th Annual NextGen Public Service Awards will be given at the 2015 NextGen Award’s Ceremony, which will kick of the NextGen Training Summit on July 20th and 21st in Washington, DC. This year we have 30 finalists – the NextGen 30. Over the next month we will introduce you to our finalists through this blog series.


Meet the finalist:

Who: Katherine Spivey, Web Content/Social Media Manager and Plain Language Launcher at the General Services Administration

Achievement: NextGen Public Service Finalist, Exemplary Leader Category

“Katherine’s dynamic personality and drive to improve government writing has had a huge impact on other agencies adopting and using plain language. By starting the social media program for PLAIN, she was able to use her skills to bring more awareness to the Plain Writing Act and why clear communication is vital to accomplishing an agency’s mission. PLAIN has existed since the ‘90s, but never had a social media presence. Katherine identified this gap in outreach and took it upon herself to develop a social media policy and program. PLAIN saw a rise in membership because of people finding it on Twitter and Facebook. Katherine is always looking for ways to use social media and technology to promote plain language and engage as many federal employees as possible…Katherine is a true champion of clear government communication.” – Kathryn Catania, GSA. Catania nominated Spivey for the NextGen Exemplary Leader Award.

It’s hard for anyone to communicate clearly, especially when dealing with complex ideas. For many government agencies, it’s easier to rely on acronyms and jargon than to translate information into simple, understandable language. But complex writing and web designs make it harder for citizens to access the information that they need.

As web content manager and Plain Language Launcher at the GSA, Katherine Spivey has made a career of simplifying complex information. Aside from updating webpages, collaborating with the government’s top content creators, coordinating social media and contributing to blogs, Spivey also co-chairs the GSA’s Plain Language Action and Information Network, or PLAIN. Through DigitalGov University, she trains government managers how to write plainly and comply with the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

The Plain Writing Act requires the federal government to write all of its new publications, forms and public documents in a clear, concise manner that the general public will understand. While it is legally required of all federal agencies, Spivey pointed out that simplifying writing is easier said than done. In her experience working with the Treasury, IRS, SEC, and DHS, she’s found varying awareness of the law. Together with the GSA, she works tirelessly to strike acronyms and jargon from government publications and challenge government managers to really think about what they’re saying.

“I’m one of those people who always sees room for improvement,” she said. While many agencies already have plain language training, Spivey contended there’s still more to be done. Making sure readers, users and public citizens actually understand what the government is trying to do is “the heart of customer service,” she argued. According to Spivey, it’s difficult for many agencies, and people in general, to write in plain language because they have to remove themselves from their experience and imagine being a reader who doesn’t have the sets of knowledge that they do.

While it may be harder to communicate clearly, it is also a public service. “So much of government work is happening online,” Spivey said. Both digital services and content have to be logical and clear for people to access the information that they need. “You have to make [web content] findable, you have to make it understandable, you have to make it clear what people have to do,” she added. Simplifying language and layout are thus essential components to improving the public’s experience with government.

Good communication is not only essential from a public service perspective, but also an economic one. Aside from being the most effective way to serve the public, clear communication in both format and content are much cheaper alternatives to in-person customer service consultations. If people can understand what’s required of them from the start and access the information that they need from the web, they are much more likely to be able to help themselves.

To Spivey, plain language isn’t just practical, it’s personal. When her great aunt became widowed and needed information about supplemental benefits, Spivey jumped in to help. She scoured the appropriate website for any helpful information. Finally, unable to find it, she had her great aunt call the agency. They were told they would have to drive two hours to the agency’s headquarters for an in-person consultation. While they found the information that they needed, what ended up costing them a four hour round trip could’ve just as easily been done in 10 minutes on a website. Simpler content and web design would have saved all parties time, money and effort.

Spivey’s personal experiences ignited her passion for simplification. When asked why she got into public service, she said, “I’m a public servant because I think citizens deserve the best. Just because you have a captive audience doesn’t mean you get to treat them like that.” To her, plain language is all about leveling the playing field for the public. “It’s an issue of fairness…it’s an issue of equity, and our citizens deserve it,” she said.

Advocating for her users, citizens and the public at large, Spivey is redefining leadership one word at a time.

We will be talking to all the NextGen Public Service Award finalists in the upcoming weeks. See the full list here. Finally, register to attend the Awards Ceremony to get to know the NextGen 30 in-person!

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