Plain Language in the Federal Government

by Annetta Cheek

On June 8, 1998, Vice President Gore announced a new federal initiative requiring federal agencies to write to their customers in plain language. On behalf of the President, he called on agencies to:

• Write in plain language all new notices, letters, and other documents that went direct to the public by October 1, 1998

• Write in plain language all proposed regulations as of January 1, 1999

• Rewrite into plain language all existing letters, notices, and similar documents by January 1, 2002

Not everyone in the federal government met this new Presidential directive with enthusiasm. Many believed it couldn't be done; the government was too hidebound and rigid, too set in its ways. A few even thought it shouldn't be done, since it threatened established procedures and policies. Many in the federal legal community were concerned that plain language writing would be too imprecise, discarding terms of art supported by years of case law.

At the same time, the pockets of plain writing within the Administration celebrated. We'd been hoping for this for a long time. We believed it was important for the government to start making more sense to the American people.

What has happened since June of 1998? The federal government is inching towards a plain language standard. Not racing, but making perceptible progress the American public can already notice. Here are some examples:.

The Veterans Benefits Administration had already started its own program, called reader-focused writing, before the Vice President's plain language initiative started. They had trained 800 staff members in "reader-focused writing," writing for the customer rather than for other bureaucrats or for agency lawyers. When the initiative began, Veterans updated its training and expanded its goals. In June of this year, they started an ambitious program to train 8,000 of their 13,000 employees to write for the reader. With the letters they've already rewritten, they've found they get fewer calls from veterans asking for clarification, and more correct responses to their requests for information from veterans. Overall, they expect the program will save time and money.

The Food and Drug Administration is tackling the problem on different fronts. The FDA produces masses of literature related to health issues. It's a tremendous job to get it all into plain language, but FDA employees have made a good start. They now require manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs to label their products in easy-to-understand language. They've prepared a plain language packet of materials intended for retailers of tobacco products, telling those vendors about restrictions on selling tobacco to minors. They've produced a terrific plain language pamphlet on the need for women to get regular pap smears and checkups for breast cancer. They ran an in-house contest and selected their own plain language slogan to promote the initiative: "Plain Language-it's the Write Thing."

Under Chairman Arthur Levitt, the Securities and Exchange Commission has moved strongly towards plain language. The SEC started a pilot program, offering to review required financial documents, such as proxy statements and prospectuses, that were in plain language more quickly than documents in standard legalese. The program was so successful, and so well received by the securities industry, that the SEC issued a final regulation early in 1999 requiring that certain parts of financial disclosure documents, including the executive summary and risk factors, be in plain language. Now everyone, not just experts, can read these documents and use them to make informed decisions about investments.

Social Security Administration Commissioner Kenneth Apfel sent a Commissioner's Bulletin to all employees in July 1999, to introduce the plain language initiative and describe its importance to the SSA's mission. This endorsement gave a boost to a whole series of other SSA initiatives.

• All Deputy Commissioners (DC) will soon release Plain Language Actions Plans to their employees. The SSA Plain Language in Government Writing Action Plan and a desk reference entitled "SSA's Standards for Writing in Plain Language," will go with the DCs' Plans.

• The SSA developed a half-hour plain language videotape to show all employees. It opens with a brief statement from the Commissioner endorsing plain language, explaining its importance, and restating his commitment to the initiative. The tape continues with a private plain language contractor providing tips on how employees can achieve plain language in their writing.

• Over 250 employees who write high-volume correspondence to the public are attending two-day plain language workshops. Nearly 5,000 employees who write low-volume correspondence to the public will attend a one-day workshop. This summer, the SSA convened a workgroup, facilitated by a private sector contractor specializing in regulations, to reorganize SSA's part of the Code of Federal Regulations using plain language principles.

• The SSA recently submitted its newly revised Form-7005, "Your Social Security Statement," to the National Partnership for Reinventing Government for a nomination for the No Gobbledygook Award. Beginning October 1, the SSA will launch the largest customized mailing ever undertaken by a federal agency when it sends this annual Statement to 125 million workers.

The Department of the Interior has made plain language an essential part of everyday operations. The department has published many final rules in plain language. The foundation of the Department's program is training. It offers introductory plain language training every month through the Department learning center. The Department is sponsoring in-depth training for employees working on selected regulations. In this training, it pairs a program official with one of the reviewing attorneys. Some good examples of published plain language regulations are Bureau of Indian Affair's Housing Improvement Program (25 CFR part 256) and Mineral Management Service's rules on relief or reduction of royalty rates (30 CFR part 203).

On the nonregulatory front, the Department's bureaus have developed inventories of the existing nonregulatory documents they intend to convert into plain language. They have each converted their top five existing documents into plain language.

The Department has also taken a leading role in reaching out to other departments across the federal government. It offers a free, half-day introduction to plain language to any office that can get together at least 20 staff members wanting training. Interior has presented over 60 of these programs.

The Department of Commerce was a leader in responding to the Vice President's requirement that all agencies develop plans to carry out the initiative. The Deputy Secretary circulated to all agency heads the Presidential directive and the Vice President's guidance, stressing the Secretary's commitment to the initiative. Agencies formed a department-wide committee to spread the word and help develop necessary skills. The DOC committee is called the Plain Language Action Service Technical Information Committee-PLASTIC. As committee head James Dorskind says, "This is a serious initiative, but we have a sense of humor about it."

The Department presented a professionally led training program to select staff. It taped another training program and distributed it to all agencies, including some field installations. Commerce now sells this tape at a nominal cost to other agencies needing training tools. Commerce recently submitted a nomination to the Vice President's Plain Language award, a new aid for fishers to explain requirements of the rule requiring "pingers" on fishing nets.

The Office of Management and Budget provides guidance on many topics to all federal agencies. Much of the material that came out of the OMB in the past was bureaucratic and difficult to read. The OMB is making a significant start in addressing this problem. Currently, a task force is working to revise the "information collection" regulations in plain language. These regulations specify procedures that every agency must follow when asking for permission to collect information from the public. The OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy is embarking on a project to eliminate many old policy memos and rewrite the remaining ones in plain language. These initiatives are important far beyond the tiny portion of OMB's documents they impact. Many agencies look at OMB as a trend setter, and the significant movement toward plain language by this agency will have a major impact government-wide.

Another major office in OMB, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), is playing a leadership role in promoting plain language use throughout the federal government. OIRA staff work with new regulations that are about to be proposed to help the authors write in plain language. OIRA has been re-writing its own documents in plain language. Currently, the office is writing guidelines in plain language to help agencies conduct cost-benefit analyses of proposed regulations. OIRA anticipates the guidelines will prove to be useful to a very broad audience, not just agency economists, and will encourage all users to write in plain language.

OIRA has recently issued a plain language guidance to agencies on implementing the new Executive Order on federalism. OIRA is helping the other offices within OMB adopt plain language as well. OIRA will be helping to write OMB Circular A-11 in plain language over the coming year; last spring, OIRA worked to put part of the publication into plain language as an interim measure.

The Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation, the agency that pays your benefits when your former employer can't, wants to make sure you don't have any unanswered questions when you read their letters. The agency understands that when their letters aren't clear and readers have questions, the readers have to call or write the agency, wasting everyone's time. The agency uses "template letters" that employees personalize for individual recipients. The agency has revised hundreds of those letter templates with hundreds more to come.

The agency also embarked on a corporate-wide training program that helps employees weave plain language into their everyday work life. The result should be employees who use plain language in everything they do for both internal and external customers.

Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) is a small research agency within the Department of Transportation. The plain language advocates at this agency, working with the Office of the Federal Register, are trying to make a major contribution to the readability of those most-important federal documents-regulations. On December 11, 1998, the Federal Register published a RSPA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in a "test" format using new techniques. RSPA believes that these new format techniques would make regulations much easier to read, thus making them easier to comply with. The format changes RSPA tried include the following:

• Staggered indentation for different paragraph levels

• Blank half-lines between paragraphs

• Centered headings

• Identifying defined terms

• Clarifying table

• Using bulleted lists in preamble summaries

These may not seem like major changes, but, to anyone who reads the Federal Register regularly, they are revolutionary. Even though the time for comment on the rule is long past, the Federal Register is still seeking comments on the format. You can help by taking a look at this new format and letting the Federal Register know how you like it.

What's next? Many other agencies are working on plain language projects, large and small. Watch for drastic improvements in many of the forms and notices you get from the IRS. The folks at the Health Care Finance Administration, the agency that brings us Medicare, are working hard to move their agency toward plain language. Check out next year's "Medicare and You" pamphlet, and watch the "Nursing Home Compare" website for improvements. Student Financial Aid Administration is determined to be a plain language agency. Watch for next year's on-line application for student aid. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is working on revising 11 major forms into plain language. The Office of Personnel Management has already re-done into plain language its portion of the pamphlet that federal employees get yearly about available health benefits. OPM is requiring health care vendors to rewrite their portions in plain language by next year.

You can help. If you get something from the government that isn't in plain language, let the agency know about it. Let them know the President and Vice President expect them to write in plain language. You can show them the presidential memo with the requirement, and all the supporting guidance, by going to the plain language website, If you want to write more plainly to your own customers, you'll find lots of help there.

Annetta L. Cheek is an anthropologist by training, earning a PhD from the University of Arizona in 1974. Most of her federal career, first in the National Park Service, later in the Office of Surface Mining, and most recently in the Bureau of Land Management, has been in writing and implementing regulations. She became interested in the plain English movement four years ago, and since then has worked to spread the use of plain language across the government, the last three years in Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government.