COMMENTARY

Get this: Two new laws with a fan base

I hate to make predictions, but hey, 'tis the season for prognostication!

Two pieces of legislation that passed in the latter half of last year should have a significant impact in 2011. The first is the Plain Writing Act. Three responses to the blog post announcing the law’s passage were: “Yes!” “Yay” and “THANK GOD.” I guess it makes people pretty happy.

Of course, as with all legislation, we hold our collective breaths to watch what will really happen. Mark Hammer, an analyst at the Public Service Commission of Canada, nailed it:

“As someone who works in employee surveys, I can attest that there is a perpetual battle between the policy folks, and language they use (which is often highly legalistic), and the front line folks who need to frame/phrase things from the perspective of the citizen/employee. So although the legislation itself is supportive, the step that people have to take is to consult with novices regularly, so as to understand what they need and want to know and not just leave it at what you want to tell them.” [Emphasis added]

Based on Mark’s insight, here’s my plea for agencies: In the era of open government, it’s time for anyone writing for citizens to get help from the people who will ultimately read what you've written. Here are two concrete ideas.

1. Crowdsource the translation process. Partner with college and university writing programs to engage students in a meaningful project that doesn’t just lead to a grade but actually serves their nation.

2. Post the most perplexing language in a public wiki. Just as we’ve opened datasets via Data.gov, why not create something like Gobbledygook.gov and allow nerdy English Ph.D.s and poets to translate problematic bureaucratese into beautiful prose?

Ah, telework!

The second piece of legislation that should be a game changer is the new Telework Enhancement Act. If you thought federal employees were pleased with plain language, that’s nothing compared to the elation of folks avoiding a two-hour commute each day — one way! As evidence, the first blog post after the act was passed shouted “Hooray!”

There are two reasons why it’s important to make telework a normal facet of federal culture.

  • “I recently had an accident that resulted in broken bones and surgery. I wasn’t able to leave the house for several weeks. However, because my division supports telework, I was able to start work a couple days after leaving the hospital. I signed on for just a couple hours a day from home, which allowed me to stay caught up on e-mails and on top of other projects.”
    — Eric Erickson, public affairs specialist, Internal Revenue Service
  • “As a big believer that a balanced life makes a good leader, I find that people are much more productive when they develop work habits that match their talent, skills and current life experience. [It] not only increases productivity, it increases happiness.”
    — Kathleen Schafer, founding principal, Leadership Connection

The stage is set for an awful lot of bickering in Washington in the next couple of years, so I suppose we could use the little bit of happiness these laws will bring inside the Beltway and beyond.

About the Author

Andy Krzmarzick is the community manager for GovLoop, a social network for people in and around government.

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