Plain Language, Please! We’re Watching You Uncle Sam, and Your Content Too

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No matter what your political views may be, if you’re a content geek like we are, you’ve got to hand it to the US Government for at least one thing: Five years ago, they signed the Plain Writing Act into law. This officially started requiring federal agencies to make their communication a lot clearer so that they’d be easier for the public to understand. Soon after, in January 2011, the government issued an executive order stating that all regulations must likewise be “accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.”

Now maybe you’re thinking so what? But if you’ve ever had a reason to read government content, then you know just how difficult it can be to make sense of. In fact, they can be down right confusing, leaving you scratching your head as you sort through all of the passive voice, crazy long sentences, and lots and lots of jargon.

Since the Plain Writing Act doesn’t include any mechanism for reviewing or enforcing compliance, you might assume that the whole thing is nothing more than a bunch of lip service. But, over the past few years the Center for Plain Language has stepped up to fill this role, reviewing the governments’ plain language programs along with samples of their writing. As part of that process, a group of readers score the writing samples against a set of plain language criteria. The Center for Plain Language also uses Acrolinx to analyze the content in terms of grammar, style, and overall readability.

The output of the annual effort is a report card that rates 23 different government departments and agencies across two dimensions: their compliance with the Plain Writing Act and the quality of their writing and information design. It just so happens that the 2015 Federal Plain Language Report Card was released earlier this month.

Curious to know how the government performed? We know you are…

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The good news is that things are generally improving:

  • Participation is at an all-time high, with 23 agencies submitting materials for review, including all 15 Cabinet-level departments.
  • Compliance scores have increased overall, with eight agencies improving while four others dropped.
  • 13 agencies improved in writing and information design while only five dropped.
  • There were no Ds or Fs; instead, a record number of agencies scored B or higher.

Of course, there’s work to be done. A report from the Center for Plain language notes that, “Agencies are making progress in using plain language, but much writing still uses a bureaucratic, overly technical style with an un-reader-friendly structure.”

We’re excited that the US government recognizes the importance of clear, easy to understand writing and we’re thrilled to be a part of this great initiative. As we dive deeper into the 2016 Election, remember that no matter who comes out on top, let’s all hope that they’re equally committed to creating content that can easily be understood.