Why Implementing the Plain Writing Act Will Take Decades

“In just a few more years, the current homogenized voice of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.” The Cluetrain Manifesto

“In just a few more years” – if only that were true. Unfortunately, this quote was written more than ten years ago, and we’re still plagued with bureaucratic jargon, in both the public and private sectors. I got to thinking about this book, and this quote in particular, when I saw that the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs finalized guidance for the use of plain language in government communication. This memo comes six months after the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into law, 13 years after President Clinton issued his “Plain Language in Government Writing” memorandum, and more than 40 years since President Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”

As Joel Siegel at ABC News first reported late last year after the law went into effect, the challenge of changing “government-speak” to “human-speak” isn’t a new one, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t be hailing a new, similar law in another ten years. After all, agencies will not receive any additional funding for this, nor will they be penalized for ignoring the guidance or rewarded for improving the clarity of their writing. While Siegel highlighted some of the changes he’s already seen, my guess is that we’ll see an initial surge of revisions that get a lot of media coverage, followed by a majority of agencies falling back into the way things have always been done. Unfortunately, getting the government to write in plain language isn’t something that can be solved by law or by technology. It’s not as simple as creating an app or telling people “do it because I said so.” Here’s why:

  • Change is HARD. From my previous post, “in the government, leadership and, consequently, leadership priorities are constantly changing as administrations change. Because of this, employees suffer from change fatigue (if you don’t like how your department was reorganized, wait a year and it’ll change again), middle managers don’t invest in the change themselves, and leaders all too often push forward with their own agendas and goals, current organizational culture be damned.”
  • No Reward, No Punishment. Government employees aren’t just going to start writing in plain English because you told them to. Think of the alcoholic who takes Antabuse to punish himself if he takes a drink or the dog who gets a treat for sitting on command. Positive behaviors need to be positively reinforced and negative ones negatively reinforced. This is behavior modification 101.
  • History Repeats Itself. The government employee or contractor knows this isn’t their first plain language rodeo. They know that we’ve been down this road before. What makes this time different? They’re asking, “why should I invest myself into this effort when I know it’s going to fail just like all of the other times?”
  • Too Much Training Before, Not Enough Training After. I think most government employees aren’t even aware that they’re writing in bureaucratic gobbledygook. For years and years, they’ve had this writing style drilled into them by their bosses. I work for a government contractor and can tell you that on more than one occasion, I’ve received feedback like, “we can’t use contractions in this document – that’s not professional” and “try the word ‘leverage’ instead of ‘use’ – it makes us sound smarter.” After years of feedback like this, you actually lose the ability to speak and write like a human being. It’s not that the government is being malicious and purposely writing this way – it’s that many government employees literally do not have the ability to write for the average person anymore. The Plain Writing Act should make Plain Language training a mandatory requirement where these employees (and their managers) have to re-learn what good writing is.
  • Legal Hurdles. Would the world end if the lawyers were the ones writing the first drafts of these policies and regulations and then let the communications professionals edit their work, instead of the other way around? For too long, communications professionals like me have had to painstakingly translate highly technical content into readable English, only to see it get edited by the lawyers into the very thing I was trying to avoid. Again, this goes back to the reward/punishment argument earlier though. Put out a new document in plain English and get sued? That lawyer is in a heap of trouble. Put out a new document in bureaucratic and legal jargon so no one understands? Nothing happens. I don’t blame the lawyers in the Office of General Counsel – I’d try my hardest to cover all my legal bases too!
  • Good Writing is Still Considered a Nice-to-have. When budgets get cut, who goes – the communications/public affairs guy in the front office or the engineer in Operations? Say what you will about the government, but they’re almost always focused on the accomplishing the mission of their organization. Things like communications, strategic planning, and change management are often viewed as extraneous, “nice-to-have” things – not core components of the mission. Until the agencies view plain writing as integral to their ability to achieve their mission, I’m afraid it will never get any long-term traction.

President Obama took a step in the right direction with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, but so did President Nixon and President Clinton. That first step is the easiest. The really difficult part comes now. Can this Administration succeed where past administrations failed? Can they integrate plain writing into the culture and mission of the government and lay the foundation of change? Actually, this doesn’t sound all that different than what we’re trying to accomplish with Gov 2.0, does it?

Here’s the Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010

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About sradick

I’m Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh.

Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

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  • “Utilize” is my litmus test. If someone uses that word, I know they are insecure about their position or intelligence, and then I can start my next statement with “As you know…”, which will elicit a knowing nod even though they have no idea. 😀

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Gianpaolo – I’ve seen a lot of that word where I work 🙂  How you been?

  • I actually think for the first time we can have hope that this might actually happen.  Mostly due to everyone, not just Government, saying we need to communicate with people (citizens, customers, constituents etc) differently.  We need to talk to them at their level and in their language – not just language as in a foreign language but in syntax, word choice etc.  Because of social media we are all being asked to rethink how we communicate with each, develop new methods for engaging people, learn new skills and ask ourselves what will resonate most with our intended audience.  

    Part of the social media training I provide at the Department of State is focused on how to create good content for a variety of social media sites.  When you connect this content creation teaching with hands on training for a tool or platform it makes more sense to people.  It helps them see how it can be applied and why they may need to change how they are currently doing business.  This is why even though we have laws and policies we might finally be successful in learning how to communicate better with people.  

  • Anonymous

    Lovisa – these are all good steps and I definitely think we’re making progress.  However, I’m not sure that this “will happen” until people like you and I (if we don’t get poisoned by the bureaucracy) are actually in positions of authority where we can be the ones to say, “no, this sounds like government-speak – rewrite it in plain English.” 

  • Donning my hat as an elected city councilor, this news is intriguing to me — and news to me, for I hadn’t heard of this before. I can attest to gobbledygook in the city charter and local ordinances, and I admit to writing such (because it was written that way before me). I wonder if municipalities plan to echo this federal order and/or if any municipalities already write such.

  • Anonymous

    I sure hope is some plain writing initiatives going on at the state and local level! Let me know if you come across some good examples!

  • It’s definitely not an easy thing to make happen. Think about scientific organizations…who do you write for? Are you supposed to write publications, journal articles, etc for the scientific community that uses them? What about the general public? Certainly there’s going to be scientific publications that, if written in plain language, might actually be of interest to a larger audience than just scientists. So, do you write every publication, article, and journal piece in two different versions (one of the scientists that need to see that kind of complex language, and one for the general public that might have an interest)? That would certainly require a lot more work on many people (scientists, editors, etc). Although it makes sense to offer things in plain language, to what extent do you do that? 

    The other big thing is re-learning, as you mentioned. But there’s definitely that tendency to write in more complex language when you’re doing so as a government employee. Legalise is drilled into us from the start. But it’s not just government…it’s also private industry. We live in a society where “suing” has become the norm. If there’s no specification of what you can or can’t do, what may or may not happen, or who should or shouldn’t do something, there’s a chance that “you could get sued” as many lawyers would quickly point out. It’s a sad reality.

    I hope to see plain language implemented widely, wisely, and where appropriate. But it will take a long time, regardless of mandates/requirements that come down the pipe. 

  • Anonymous

    Scott – you’ve hit at the heart of the challenge…who, exactly is our audience? Is it always the public? Should we assume that everything we write will be consumed by the public? The problem is that doing anything to the lowest common denominator will render whatever it is virtually useless to virtually everyone.  “Plain language” to a lawyer is very different from plain language to a mason. I think (and I’m not just saying because I am one) this shows why it’s so important for government agencies to have professional communicators on staff – people who can take information and tailor it to the audience. Sure, sometimes this means writing things twice, but isn’t that preferable to having to staff a call center to answer all of the questions that form is going to elicit from the public?

  • Did you notice the Federal Aviation Administration provides “technical support” to plainlanguage.gov? The FAA?!?

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  • After four years, can any of us watchers and doers claim that anything worthwhile has been achieved? A few best practices in the federal sector — but I’m waiting for trickle down adoption into state and local. That’s where the real change would take decades to occur.