VA fails to communicate clearly; who gets a better grade?

Everyone recognizes the value of good communication, and a mandate on plain writing issued in 2010 put extra pressure on the federal government to shun the gobbledygook. A new report, however, found that few agencies have made actual strides in avoiding convoluted language.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was instituted as a building block to increase government transparency by calling for writing that’s clear, concise and well-organized, void of jargon, redundancy and ambiguity. In an April 2011 memo to agency heads, Cass R. Sunstein, administrator in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said plain writing is ”indispensable” to establishing a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.

Although it’s been close to two years since the plain writing directive became law, the majority of agencies are still lagging behind with the adoption, according to the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit dedicated to clear communication in government, the private sector and academia.

The center ranked 12 federal agencies on their compliance with the requirements of the act, giving each two scores. The first score considers whether an agency uses plain language in its documents, has created a plain-writing implementation plan and educated employees in pain language, among other aspects. The second grade represents how well an agency followed the spirit of the act. For this score, the center worked with PLAIN, the federal plain language group.

The Agriculture Department came in as a clear winner, scoring A/B. USDA has created a plain-language website, designated three senior officials and has an implementation plan in place. Additionally, the agency has a 2012 compliance report and lists several pages of examplse where it uses plain language. Employees were informed about the plain-language effort via internal communications and newsletters. 

On the bottom of the list was the Veterans Affairs Department, with F’s in both columns. The dismal grades represent the agency’s non-compliance with almost all of the requirements in the Plain Writing Act, the center said. Although VA had designated a plain-writing official, “that is apparently all they have done. . . . There is no website, apparently no plan or compliance report,” the report card states.

SSA, another lower-scoring agency, has both a website and an official designated to plain writing efforts but failed to link to the plain-writing website from the agency website. The agency also wasn’t nearly as successful in promoting plain-writing use although it said it encourage the use of plain-language principles “when developing all external communications.” SSA also hadn't implemented any measurements to evaluate the effectiveness of the plain-writing program.

“The mixed results of the first-ever Plain Language Report Card show that we still have a long way to go to make government forms and documents simpler and easier for taxpayers to understand,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), author of the act. “Some federal agencies have embraced the Plain Writing Act, and others haven’t. Until these grades are all A-plus, we’re going to keep holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire.”

The winners and losers of plain-language implementation:

Agriculture department: A/B

National Archives and Records Administration: B/C

Defense department: B/D

Labor department: B/F

Health and Human Services department: C/B

Social Security Administration: C/C

Small Business Association: C/C

Justice department: C/D

Transportation department: C/F

Environmental Protection Agency: C/F

Homeland Security department: D/D

Veterans Affairs department: F/F

About the Author

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

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