Each year, the Center for Plain Language (CPL) examines documents from federal agencies to determine if they are effectively meeting the goals of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which encourages agencies to make public documents easier to understand by using plain language.
To measure compliance, CPL asked agencies to fill out an online survey and list what programs were in place to meet the specific requirements of the Act. They had to identify writing samples that could be analyzed and describe what comprehensive testing the samples underwent. Agencies also had to describe the progress they’ve made in implementing their plain language programs and what challenges remained. CPL then handed out grades in three areas — compliance, writing and information design.
“I’m encouraged that some agencies have taken this law seriously,” Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) said in a phone press conference Tuesday. “Sixteen out of the 22 departments improved over last year’s grades. And in 2014, compliance of the Plain Writing Act increased. Nineteen departments fulfilled the requirements of the Act, earning A’s for compliance, compared with only 12 in 2013.”
Only the departments of Education, Interior and State failed to meet the Act’s requirements.
CPL gave both Interior and State failing grades for compliance and incompetes in writing and information design because neither agency submitted writing samples.
2014 was Education’s first year to be evaluated and it proved to be a rough start. The agency received a “D” in compliance and passing grades for writing and information design.
The Homeland Security Department emerged from “detention” last year to earn a spot on the “dean’s list” by posting the highest overall writing score, according to the report card. The Social Security Administration — last year’s leader — and the Securities and Exchange Commission also posted scores near the top.
CPL volunteer Annetta Cheek has been following the plain language issue since 1995. In that time, she’s seen three plain language initiatives introduced in the government and considers the current one as the most successful.
“It’s hard to write plainly,” she said. “The result looks easy, but getting there is not so easy. Writing bureaucratically is much easier.”
Expanding the scope of the report cards
In previous years, CPL only measured compliance. This was the first time it handed out grades for writing and information design.
“This year, we changed our requirements a little bit and changed our scoring a little bit to spend more time with the spirit of the Act, in addition to the compliance with the Act,” said Kath Straub, CPL board member and report card lead.
Most of the agencies received low scores in information design, which Straub acknowledged could be due to the fact that it was a new category that agencies weren’t concentrating on.
“This level of thinking about writing takes it to a next step and forces you to think about not only the words that you use, but the visuals and organization and the presentation that you create around those words,” she said, “to help your readers see the important piece and understand exactly what they need to get out of the writing.”
So far, agencies have been picking their own documents. Beginning next year, though, CPL will be choosing the documents.
“In these three years, we’re getting some documents that are quite good,” Cheek said. “What percent of all the federal documents do they represent? Maybe a tiny percent. Next year, we’re going to be picking the documents, and we’ll focus on documents that are sort of key to an agency’s mission as far as the public is concerned.”
As a federal employee for 25 years, Cheek has seen her fair share of bureaucratic writing.
“When I first started in plain language, the piece of advice I’d give is, if you want to do something, shorten your sentences and use active voice,” Cheek said. “I’m now seeing far less passive voice when I read federal material. It’s a trend. It has a long way to go, but I do think there is some overall progress.”