Executive orders fail the plain English test

Editor’s note: This column is a re-run of a previous column as Tom Temin is out on vacation.

Memo to Biden White House: See memo on plain language. Why, oh why, are your thud-factor executive orders so, so, so wordy?

Having read, or tried to read, the recent executive orders on cybersecurity and on diversity and inclusion, I can only say they need a rewrite. They use correct grammar and spelling all right. But in the same way Jackson Pollock used canvas and paint. Except the artist meant to be abstract.

Sensing these EOs were prime examples of how the government should not write, I asked Fergal McGovern to run them through his analytical engine. McGovern is the CEO of Ireland-based Visible Thread. The company’s software analyzes texts for meaning and clarity. It flags long sentences, fancy words, jargon, passive voice, adverbs, hidden verbs and other slop that makes documents hard to read. The company has at least two English-speaking governments among its clients.

One Visible Thread metric for readability is the reader grade level a document requires. Newspapers and agencies like the Government Accountability Office traditionally try to write to the 8th grade level. The cybersecurity EO comes in at grade 16.6 — meaning it’s comprehensible only at the post-graduate level. The diversity and inclusion EO comes in at 16.4. In both documents you’ll find sentences of 40-, 50-, even 60-some words. Some passages practically threw the comprehension meter into tilt, to grade 60.

You might say, well, people in government dealing with this stuff are college graduates, so what’s the big deal? McGovern argues — and I agree — you’re right about the audience. But why make it so hard for people? Why make people read paragraphs like this:

“(b) Using Federal standards governing the collection, use, and analysis of demographic data (such as OMB Directive No. 15 (Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity) and OMB Memorandum M–14–06 (Guidance for Providing and Using Administrative Data for Statistical Purposes)), the head of each agency shall measure demographic representation and trends related to diversity in the agency’s overall workforce composition, senior workforce composition, employment applications, hiring decisions, promotions, pay and compensation, professional development programs, and attrition rates.”

Or this:

“The Secretary of Homeland Security acting through the Director of CISA, in consultation with the Administrator of General Services acting through the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) within the General Services Administration, shall develop security principles governing Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) for incorporation into agency modernization efforts. To facilitate this work: (i) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security acting through the Director of CISA, and the Administrator of General Services acting through FedRAMP, shall develop a Federal cloud-security strategy and provide guidance to agencies accordingly. Such guidance shall seek to ensure that risks to the FCEB from using cloud-based services are broadly understood and effectively addressed, and that FCEB Agencies move closer to Zero Trust Architecture.”

My question is, if you want better cybersecurity, and more diversity and inclusion, why not take the time to pare these orders down to tight, clear prose?

I suspect the detailed, legalistic tone is caused by the prescriptive approach to the policy itself, however hidden in the thicket it might be. And the approach is wrong. In its prescriptiveness, it presupposes that the only way to make sure agencies carry out policy is by leaving out no detail, or any room for discretion. Clearly committees spent months putting these documents together, and they worried about possible wiggle room. The documents read like contracts.

Mind you, I’m not talking about the aims or policies of the EOs, which are up to the administration. I’m simply asking, why talk to agencies like this?

Here are three pieces of advice for good writing. No doubt you’ve read them before:

  • Use plain language.
  • Write short and simple sentences in active voice.
  • Choose the words that are familiar to the user. Only use the abbreviations, contractions, acronyms and initialisms that the user understands.

The points came not from a writing professor but rather from the government. The government of Australia, that is. Australia has been on a drive to improve the quality of writing its federal functionaries put out for the public. Its government has published a detailed style manual.

The U.S. federal government also has a plain English policy. Both the Government Publishing Office and the Government Accountability Office offer style and writing guides. You can find a whole web site with the policies, enabling laws, and guidance: plainlanguage.gov.

I found this paragraph: “The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience. Use language your audience understands and feels comfortable with. Take your audience’s current level of knowledge into account. Don’t write for an 8th-grade class if your audience is composed of PhD candidates, small business owners, working parents, or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th-grade class.”

I disagree. Clarity and conciseness don’t equal dumbing down. Confusion, long sentences, passive voice, acronyms, adverbs, jargon — they result from failure to perform the most important part of writing. Namely, rewriting your own stuff after you’re spewed out the initial version. Treat your draft the way Michelangelo would treat a slab of marble.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

During the 1984 Summer Olympics, McDonald’s ran a promotion that gave every customer a scratch off that listed an Olympic event on it. Every time the United States won a medal in the event, the customer would win a prize. A Big Mac for every gold medal, french fries for every silver medal, and a coke for every bronze medal. With the Soviet Union not joining the games, the U.S. had a monster Olympics, tallying up 174 medals, 83 of them being gold. The fast food giant took a huge financial hit with thousands of stores running out of supplies.

Source: New York Times Archive

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