House to Federal Employees: Write in “Plain Language”

Here is an issue with bipartisan support from our Congressional representatives. Congress apparently thinks that federal employees do not write well and intends to correct the problem. A bill has passed the House requiring agencies to use “plain language.” Haven’t we seen this before?

Some problems never go away.

A case in point: The use of easy-to-understand language in government documents.

The problem of poor writing in government documents does not always start with the writer. Oftentimes the problem is that everyone reviewing the document wants to make a difference. Trying to please everyone on a document takes time and leads to complex documents–sometimes with little attention to the original purpose of the document.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is the latest to jump on a bandwagon extolling the virtues of using plain language in federal documents. A news article from the Associated Press states “The U.S. House passed a bill Monday that would prohibit the federal government from writing confusing language on its letters, forms and other publications.”

No doubt, this legislation should solve the problem and we can get on with business.

Congressman Braley’s quote generated a déjà vu moment.

When working for OPM during the Carter Administration, I recalled a directive on the same topic—directing agencies to write in plain English. Executive Order 12044 was issued on March 23, 1978 and its purpose was “improving government regulations.” The order was written to require that “Regulations shall be as simple and clear as possible.”

No doubt, the authors did not see the irony in setting up a strict set of procedures to be followed in the quest for writing simple, clear regulations. Oddly enough, the requirement to write clearly did not even apply to all agencies as it exempted “regulations issued by the independent regulatory agencies” or “matters related to agency management or personnel.” Perhaps due to an unwarranted confidence in the ultimate outcome, the executive order automatically expired in June 1980.

I took the issue to heart and volunteered for the job of writing a new version of “The Supervisor’s Guide to Federal Labor Relations.” The agency sold about 500,000 copies to other agencies in a short time. The intent was to explain a complex program in simple, easy-to-understand language that would be easy for a federal supervisor to use.

After the book was out and the money safely within the agency’s budget, a senior executive informally advised me the book had created a serious problem and I should avoid creating these problems in the future. The General Counsel had reviewed the book after publication. He apparently communicated to the agency head that the book did not contain legal citations referencing the labor relations statute or case law and did not explain numerous exceptions that could arise in a labor relations situation. That, of course, was a problem with the original document as it was not intelligible to many supervisors. The real problem, I suspect, was that the success of the book was perceived as a threat within the organization.

This example is hardly unique in government; the content of written documents reflects power and influence of individuals or organizations in an agency. Power struggles and a desire for influence always take precedence.

Not surprisingly, President Carter’s executive order did not change the culture of government. President Bill Clinton tried again in 1998. While not referencing the earlier executive order, he issued a memo on the subject of “Plain Language in Government Writing” which told agencies to use short sentences, the active voice and common, everyday words and to start using “you” and “other pronouns” in government writing.

To make sure this happened, President Clinton told agencies to do this by October 1, 1998. And, for even greater effect, agencies had to start using “plain language” in proposed regulations appearing in the Federal Register by January 1, 1999.

Congressman Braley may be unaware of these earlier efforts or has concluded that President Clinton’s memo did not change the culture of government any more than President Carter’s effort. If Braley’s bill becomes law (a similar bill will be debated in the Senate), perhaps it will do what previous efforts have failed to do and change the culture of the federal government with future documents being written in clear, understandable English to comply with a new law.

Based on the lack of success of these earlier efforts, I doubt the bill will make a substantial difference. But even if this noble effort fails, he has identified a topic that has bipartisan support. The bill passed the house 376-1 so apparently most Congressmen are unhappy with the writing skills of the executive branch.

While Congress may not get around to many other items of importance, such as passing a budget for fiscal year 2009, our elected representatives will probably be able to tell their constituents they had a role in improving the culture of government by requiring “plain language” in government documents.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47