The case for grammar cops in every regulatory agency
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In a previous article, I commended the current efforts of Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and his bi-partisan colleagues to pass a package of regulatory reform bills, one of which would require that every new or proposed rule include a 100-word, plain-language summary. 

The Providing Accountability Through Transparency Act of 2017 would enhance accessibility to rulemaking and should naturally expand public engagement in the governance process – a noble goal and something I have been working to promote for several years.

Unlike some aspects of the rulemaking process which can be largely automated – notably the initial reading, batching, and sorting of public comments – effectively summarizing the purpose and impact of rules still must be done by humans. 

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Accurate summarization of language is a holy grail for artificial intelligence scientists working on Natural Language Processing (NLP), who have made great strides in the last several decades. However, understanding the meaning of words in their context, consistently and accurately, still presents a major challenge.

 

Get Me Rewrite

Since we have not yet entered a brave new world when it comes to effectively summarizing language, I believe for now we should instead take a page from the best the “old world” can offer in the implementation of the Transparency Act, should it pass into law. 

I suggest we follow the model of old-school newspapers, which traditionally employ a “copy desk,” responsible for checking the content of every article before publication. If something doesn’t make sense or isn’t worded clearly, the copy editor either figures out how to improve the text – or else kicks it back to the reporter for clarification. 

The goal, of course, is to make written language adhere to the copy editor’s so-called “four Cs” -- clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness -- so that readers with an elementary education can understand what a new or proposed rule means, and how it might affect them.

And for this important function we still need the human brain, with its majestic ability to understand language in ways that leave computers scratching their silicon and spitting out clumsy, sometimes error-filled prose.

Kill All the Lawyers (Or At Least Make Them Write Clearly)

There is a second problem in summarizing rulemaking documents so the general public can readily comprehend their relevance and import. This concerns the proverbial tendency of lawyers to overcomplicate language, thus making it generally inaccessible to non-lawyers.

This criticism of lawyers as writers is a generalization, although not completely invalid. The range of prose quality among government lawyers crafting rulemaking language includes some who can turn an elegant phrase and communicate with the general public with simplicity and clarity. Others, not so much.

As with the case of writers and reporters on a newspaper or magazine staff whose prose miss the four-C’s mark in their submitted drafts, having a professional editor in-house at every rulemaking agency would help provide critical quality control across the government. 

I am a recovering lawyer myself and realize this recommendation for a regulatory copy desk at every agency may strike some of my colleagues as superfluous. But the regulatory world has room for people with a broad array of skills – legal, scientific, and communications – all needed to best serve the American people. 

The stakes involved with rulemaking are too high for all citizens. We should ensure everyone can easily access the process and interact with their government without barriers created by unnecessarily convoluted or complex language. 

Plus, we could put some starving writers to work.

John W. Davis II, is founder and chief executive officers of N&C, provider of the regulatory data analytics solution Regendus. Davis previously served as director of the Homicide and Major Crimes Bureau as federal prosecutor for the U.S. Virgin Islands Justice Department.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.