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.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Tue, Jul 24, 2012 Paul Sherman St. Louis

The VA gets an F? I'm shocked, simply shocked! (End sarcasm). We're the worst at plain writing. The VA actually had a policy mandating passive tense, 3rd person format for all official documents. As far as I know, it's still in place. Many of my peers are mired in 'unplain' writing; and seem proud of it. They take a well written, active tense document and edit it into 3rd person passive. This is what VA headquarters wants. It's embarrasing.

Tue, Jul 24, 2012

None of this information is surprising. Yes some Departments failed to comply, but what are the sanctions for non-compliance?

Tue, Jul 24, 2012 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Explains why requirement are so poorly developed and written. Stop focusing on minutia, and just focus on needs and mission. In a clear, concise manner, of course.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group