Sunstein: Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of open government

For government to be more open, the language it uses must be understandable to all citizens. For those who cover government technology, or the many who tried to interpret the healthcare or financial regulatory reform legislation posted online over the past year, the issue is familiar. Government documents, written by lawyers or functionaries, is all too often dense and extremely difficult to understand for regular citizens.

With the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 and a stroke of President Obama’s pen on October 13, 2010, there’s a new reason to hope that the business of government will be more understandable to all.

As a report on the Plain Language Act by Joel Siegel at ABC News reminded citizens, however, this law follows decades of similar efforts that haven’t achieved that desired outcome.

The movement to bring clarity to complex government documents began decades ago, when a Bureau of Land Management employee named John O’Hayre wrote a book after World War II called “Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go.”

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”

The Clinton administration even issued monthly “No Gobbledygook Awards” to agencies that ditched the bureaucratese. Vice President Al Gore, who oversaw the effort, called plain language a civil right, and said it promoted trust in government. The effort gave birth to a government Web site that still operates,

There are reasons to be hopeful. For one, the Federal Register was relaunched this year, in a “historic milestone in making government more open.” “Federal Register 2.0” itself only came about after an effort that deputy White House CTO Beth Noveck observed is “collaborative government at its best. The new beta of the continues to evolve.

This week, Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, issued a memorandum that provided further guidance.

Plain writing is concise, simple, meaningful, and well-organized. It avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity. It does not contain unnecessary complexity.

Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of open government. In his January 21, 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, President Obama made a commitment to establish “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Transparency, public participation, and collaboration cannot easily occur without plain writing. Clear and simple communication can eliminate significant barriers to public participation in important programs for benefits and services. Avoiding ambiguity and unnecessary complexity can increase compliance simply because people understand better what they are supposed to do. Plain writing is no mere formal requirement; it can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative or administrative goals, and it promotes the rule of law.

Preliminary Guidance for the Plain Writing Act of 2010

Among other things, the memorandum provides initial guidance to federal agencies on where to start with plain language, including making government officials accountable for implementing plain language and resources for advice. Key documents are also designated as necessary, each of which includes processes citizens need to understand:

“those that are necessary for obtaining any Federal Government benefit or service, or filing taxes; those that provide information about any Federal Government benefit or service; or those that explain to the public how to comply with a requirement that the Federal Government administers or enforces.”

If you can’t understand how to do something, good luck accomplishing the task. The same is true of benefits or legal requirements. To date, there are few aspects of regulations as clear as a red light or Stop sign. If the requirements of this law are carried out in good faith, perhaps more Americans will see more of them.

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.


Should the White House be spending time making animated GIFs?

Earlier today, however, a mechanical engineer named Claudio Ibarra commented on a Google+ thread that he thought that the animated GIF was a “waste.”

Beware openwashing. Question secrecy. Acknowledge ideology.

You could spend a long day listing all of the organizations or individuals who are putting government data online, from Carl Malamud to open government activists in Brazil, Africa or Canada.

What is the ROI of open government?

Putting a dollar value on clean water, stable markets, the quality of schooling or access to the judiciary is no easy task. Each of these elements of society, however, are to some extent related to and enabled by open government. If we think about how the fundamental democratic principles established centuries ago extend today purely […]

Cameras in the courtroom: Will SCOTUS ever go live online?

In an age where setting up a livestream to the Web and the rest of the networked world is as easy as holding up a smartphone and making a few taps, the United States Supreme Court appears more uniformly opposed to adding cameras in the courtroom than ever.

Samantha Power: OGP is President Obama’s signature governance initiative

On January 10th, 2013, the OpenGov Hub officially launched in Washington, DC. The OpenGov Hub has similarities to incubators and accelerators, in terms of physically housing different organizations in one location, but focuses on scaling open government and building community, as opposed to scaling a startup and building a business. Samantha Power, special assistant to […]

Civic app for finding flu shots goes viral

The 2012-2013 influenza season has been a bad one, with flu reaching epidemic levels in the United States.

Open Government Partnership hosts regional meeting in Chile

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has released statistics on its first 16 months since its historic launch in New York City, collected together in the infographic embedded below. This week, Open government leaders are meeting in Chile to discuss the formal addition of Argentina to the partnership and the national plans that Latin American countries […]

African News Challenge funds data journalism and open government tech

The post-industrial future of journalism is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. The same trends changing journalism and society have the potential to create significant social change throughout the African continent, as states moves from conditions of information scarcity to abundance. That reality was clear on my recent trip to Africa, where I […]

Election 2012: A #SocialElection Driven By The Data

Social media was a bigger part of the election season of 2012 than ever before, from the enormous volume of Facebook updates and tweets to memes during the Presidential debates to public awareness of what the campaigns were doing there in popular culture. Facebook may even have booted President Obama’s vote tally.

PollWatchUSA enables anyone with a smartphone to act as a poll monitor

Pollwatch, a mobile application that enabled crowdsourced poll monitoring, has launched a final version at, just in time for Election Day 2012. The initial iteration of the app was conceived, developed and demonstrated at the hackathon at the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.


Follow GovFresh