By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Plain language in government

steve kelman

Last week I blogged about the importance of agency blogging. One of the main points I tried to make was that blogging, done well, can be a way to personalize and humanize a government that often presents itself to the public in impersonal, bureaucratic ways.

This week, I have come across yet another feature on GovLoop of a topic that relates to the same theme -- using plain language in government. It reports on an interview by FCW alum Chris Dorobek of Annetta Cheek, who consults to government organizations on using plain language in their documents. (I first met Cheek when I was in government in the 1990s, and she was working on plain language government for Al Gore's "reinventing government" initiative.)

There are two somewhat separate problems with poor government language. The first is the use of jargon, which is insider language for insiders, full of arcane phrases and acronyms. And to be fair, this problem really involves all professions, not just government by any means. Hang around groups of computer scientists, doctors, or even electricians, and I guarantee you will hear plenty of acronyms and concepts you don't understand. Jargon serves a very good function inside a group, making communication easier and even encouraging an esprit de corps. The problem arises only when the jargon is imposed outside the group.

There is, though, a second plain language problem that is specific, although not unique, to government: The use of very stilted and overly formal language. Sometimes this is due to legal requirements for precision and definition. Outside of regulatory texts, however, much of the problem is cultural. "I think there's a little bit of a feeling," Cheek noted, "that if it doesn't sound governmental, it can't be quite official."

Cheek discusses recommendations for how government can do a better job. Her "two biggest suggestions for government writers are to use active voice and to shorten and simplify sentences."

Cheek's argument for plain language is about transparency and accountability. Hard-to-understand language reduces the transparency of government, while stilted, passive-voice constructions ("mistakes were made") garble responsibility. I don't disagree with either of these arguments, but I would add a third, which parallels the case I made for blogging last week: Simple language, including avoidance of jargon, humanizes and personalizes government. It reduces the gap between governors and the governed. It conveys less hierarchy and more equality. It is part of making government friendlier.

At the end of the interview, Cheek expressed optimism. "We're getting more and more examples of really good material from the government," she said. "It's still a small [percentage]. It's maybe 10 percent, which is a huge improvement."

Ignoring for a moment the dismal starting point that seeing 10 percent as a huge improvement suggests, I was disappointed that she didn't provide any examples in the interview. (Maybe she did, and they got edited out for brevity's sake.) With no examples from her, I'd like to turn things over to blog readers. Can you please post good examples (or horror stories) of plain language in government to the comments below?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 12, 2015 at 1:34 PM


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