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, www.plainlanguage.gov.
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 FederalRegister.gov 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.
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.