A government must speak plainly to its people

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Confusing government language also places a huge financial burden on individuals, businesses, and taxpayers. When we don't understand the letter we got explaining that our interest rates are going up or telling us what our new healthcare plan covers, we pick up the phone and call the help center. It takes labor, money, and time to fix problems created when people are confused.

Call centers flooded with phone calls are just one hidden cost of confusing language. The National Small Business Association has estimated that businesses with less than 20 employees pay an extra $7,600 for each employee every year to comply with confusing regulations.

When you think of some of the huge and potentially confusing changes coming in government policy (for example, the requirements of the Affordable Care Act taking effect in 2014 that will impact almost every aspect of healthcare in this country) you realize how much money and time we could save if government agencies simply did a better job of communicating.

There's a lot of disagreement in Washington about the scope of government - whether certain regulations or even whole agencies should even exist. But regardless of where you fall on the partisan spectrum, I think we can all agree that if a government regulation, rule, form, or document exists, it should be written in language that can be understood by the intended audience.

Fortunately, there's a movement building among good government groups and concerned Americans to reform the way the government communicates with American citizens. With their help, I have championed two proposals that would save taxpayers billions of dollars and instill more confidence in government.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act, legislation I wrote that requires federal agencies to write public documents in easy-to-understand language.

Last year, the Center for Plain Language released its first annual "Plain Writing Report Card", an effort to grade federal agencies on their efforts to implement the requirements of the Plain Writing Act. The report card predictably identified a great reluctance by federal agencies to change ingrained habits. Several agencies are lagging far behind the requirements of the law. But progress is being made.

The center also just held its fourth annual ClearMark Awards presentation, applauding examples of plain writing at its best. (The center also awards the WonderMark Award, a sort of "Razzie" award designed to shame the worst of the worst.)

The next frontier for reform is the Plain Regulations Act, legislation that would expand plain writing requirements to federal rules and regulations. Federal regulations are often the worst violators of plain writing best practices. On Tax Day, April 15th, I re-introduced this legislation. I'm hopeful that momentum exists to pass this common-sense proposal into law this year.

You deserve to receive information from federal agencies in language you can understand. Join the plain language movement today, and insist on clearer communication tomorrow.


Braley is represents the First Congressional District of Iowa.  He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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