Plain language in federal regulation comes closer

Federal regulations can be a maze to navigate, but the federal government this week took further steps to streamlining jargon in an effort to make rules more accessible to citizens.

Writing on the OMBlog, Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, discussed the progress the government has made in breaking down complex and lofty language, thus making regulations more comprehensible. The concern, Sunstein said, is bipartisan and comes from businesses, public interest groups and “countless individual citizens.”

After President Barack Obama took office in 2010, he directed rules to be written in plain language to make them easy to understand. He also said regulations “shall be adopted through a process that involves public participation,” including an “open exchange of information and perspectives,” Sunstein writes.

After the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, agencies began concentrated efforts to paring down rhetoric. Today, many agencies have a website dedicated to plain language and have tasked specific officials with overseeing plain writing efforts. 

Building on that effort to strip regulation language, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs on Jan 4 directed agencies to provide the public with straightforward executive summaries of all rules. With separate descriptions of all key provisions and policy choices, these summaries will detail the need for the rule and explain its legal basis.

“The use of clear, simple executive summaries will make it far easier for members of the public to understand and to scrutinize proposed rules – and thus help to improve them,” Sunstein wrote. “And for final rules, such summaries will make it far easier for people to understand what they are being asked to do."

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Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Tue, Apr 3, 2012 Leslyn CA

I did a quick scan of Sunstein's language using a tool called the "Fog Index." The Fog Index measures sentence length and complex words. Longer sentences and more complex words make writing harder to understand. Most people like to read at a Fog Index level of about 6-8. They are "fogged in" at about 12--they have either lost interest, or they don't understand. Sunstein's Fog Index was 10.8. If she's going to advocate for simple writing, she ought to take a look at her own. How we write is often how we tend to speak. BTW, I also calculated a Fog Index on this comment--without any rewriting first. It is 5.6.

Tue, Apr 3, 2012 RT

the executive summary may be an interpretation that doesn't match the rule - every time the government tries to do something it ends up with the opposite result. sigh

Tue, Apr 3, 2012 A former Fed Maryland

Now if we can only get Feds to think simply and plan modest, affordable solutions to important problems instead of hiding Empire Solutions under Grand names

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