Government agencies flunk plain-writing test

The Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD) rank among the worst federal agencies in terms of communicating clearly with the public, according to a report issued Tuesday. 

Unveiled by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and the nonpartisan Center for Plain Language, the report grades 20 federal agencies on their adherence to the 2010 Plain Writing Act, enacted to force government offices to cut down on technical speak and jargon.

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“I’m troubled by the number of agencies that are still not taking this seriously,” said Braley, the law’s author. “People have been writing in gobbledygook for so long at these agencies.”

The Plain Writing Act applies to all paper or electronic documents that the public needs to take advantage of government services or programs, and related informational materials. However, the statute does not carry penalties for those departments who don’t follow it.

The second annual Plain Writing Report Card reflects an effort to hold accountable those agencies that are neglecting their obligation to simplify documents, and reward those that have made improvements.

The agencies were given two grades, one for how well they follow the letter of the law, and a second for adhering to its principles. Treasury and HUD brought up the rear on both counts, each receiving an F for strict compliance with the act and a D for keeping with the spirit of the law.

Other agencies issued a failing grade for complying with the statute are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The Department of Labor was the only agency given an F for efforts to follow the spirit of the act in issuing documents.

Center for Plain Language chairwoman Annetta L. Cheek said the problem stems from a deeply rooted culture at federal agencies. Writers, she said, feel the need to maintain formality in government documents, often at the expense of clarity, and are hesitant to drop the “legalese” or jargon.

“People seem to think it doesn’t look official enough,” Cheek said of plainly written documents. “They focus on their boss, the attorney. They just don’t think about the end user.”

Braley was particularly critical of the Treasury Department, which drafts documents and materials used by most taxpaying Americans. He called the agency’s failing grade “disturbing.”

At the same time he lauded agencies that scored highest in the study. The Social Security Administration led all agencies with As in both categories, while the Agriculture Department, the Transportation Department, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Small Business Administration received A grades for strict compliance with the law.

The Plain Writing Act does not cover language in the reams of regulations issued by agencies, though Braley has introduced legislation that would. He is trying to build support for the Plain Regulations Act, which was introduced in April and has gained a handful of co-sponsors in the House.