Plain writing is “indispensable” for open government

Obama confers with advisors before the Cairo speech

President Barack Obama confers about the Cairo speech with Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, right, and speechwriter Ben Rhodes on Air Force One en route to Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Open government is not expressly defined as embracing technology, although it can and is be empowered by smart use of it. Last year, Cass Sunstein made plain language an essential part of open government.

Last week, Sunstein, who serves as the administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, finalized his guidance for the use of plain language in government communication a core part of open government.

For those who have tried to make sense of complex rulemaking, regulations, official announcements or directives, the change will be welcome. For the average citizen trying to comply with them, it’s essential.

“Plain writing is indispensable” to achieving the goals of establishing “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” wrote Sunstein on the White House blog. “…far too often, agencies use confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language. Such language can cost consumers and small business owners precious time in their efforts to play by the rules.”

By July 13, 2011, federal agencies must:

  • designate a senior official oversee plain language
  • create and maintain a “plain writing section” of the agency website that is
    accessible from the agency homepage
  • train employees to use plain language

“Whenever officials provide information about Federal benefits and services, produce documents that are necessary for filing taxes, or offer notices or instructions to the public, they must now write clearly and concisely,” wrote Sunstein.

Will it matter? In measuring the progress of the Open Government Directive, implementation matters. It will be no different here, as changing the culture of government to plain language will never be a matter of installing “a better app for that.”

It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government remains in beta. A year after federal government agencies published their open government plans, the projects are starting to roll out, like the rebooted FCC.gov or NASA’s Open Source Summit. Compiling an Open Government Week in Review this month served as a useful reminder of how much is happening in this space.

As agencies update their progress on open government, however, the focus has often been upon new digital initiatives. Now they have a mission that has very little to do with technology and everything to do with better communicating the activities of government to citizens: adopt the Elements of Gov 2.0 Style.

Below is the full, finalized guidance. More information is available at PlainLanguage.gov.
Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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