What good is a web page on federal housing assistance if no one can find it?
That was the question raised in this year’s Federal Report Card from the Center for Plain Language. The organization judges the clarity of writing and organizational compliance with the Plain Writing Act for agency websites and from 2018 to 2019. Nine agencies improved their writing scores while six fell in the rankings. Five agencies fell in organizational compliance and four improved. Five agencies were unchanged in either performance category, according to the 2019 report card.
Center for Plain Language Vice Chair David Lipscomb said that, overall, the average grade for 21 agencies rebounded this year to a B from a C average in 2018. He noted during a press call Tuesday that agencies’ most visited web pages were graded both in 2018 and 2019.
Lipscomb said agencies are getting better at meeting the Plain Writing Act’s requirement that information for the public be easy to understand and use. But they still struggle with the requirement that information be easy to find.
“While we’ve seen an enormous amount of progress when it comes to clear writing at the sentence level, and we have. Much less jargon — there is some jargon — much better job using active voice, writing in personal language directly to the reader, all of these wonderful things, made terrific progress there,” Lipscomb said. “The one thing that we noticed when we graded urgent help pages … what was missing was a real clear thread, a clear job pointing the reader to the most important information.”
He said the most improved agency web page from last year was the Energy Department’s “How Do Wind Turbines Work?” page. Judges commented on the “sincerity” of the page and the sense it was written by scientists eager to communicate with less familiar audiences, as well as on the page’s graphic design and navigation usability.
For the writing grade, the Center changed its methodology this year, focusing on each agency’s most visited web page and an urgent health page specific to that organization’s focus. By comparison, last year’s writing grades were based on agencies’ home pages and most visited web pages.
Only one agency received a writing grade of A: The Department of Veterans Affairs for its “Veteran suicide prevention” urgent help page, which judges found by Googling the phrase “Help! Veteran thinking about suicide,” and its My HealtheVet homepage. Judges’ feedback praised VA’s “conversational style” using first- and second-person pronouns; clear organization and placement of the most important information high up on the page. VA also dropped from an A+ to a B in organizational compliance compared to 2018, however.
Agencies struggle to use clear language for public services
The worst-performing agency graded was the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which remained unchanged at an F for organizational compliance and a D for writing quality. Its most visited page was the homepage for the Ginnie Mae government mortgage program, and the urgent help page evaluated was for rental assistance, found by Googling the phrase “Help! I need affordable housing.”
Lipscomb also said large graphics, particularly on mobile devices, or too much self-promotional details about an agency can bog down a web page and obscure the most important information. He gave the FBI’s cyber crime page as an example for anyone wishing to report an attack.
NASA and the General Services Administration were excluded from the 2019 report card because, as Lipscomb said, they lacked any relevant urgent help pages worth evaluating.
When it comes to organizational compliance with the Plain Writing Act, five of the 21 agencies graded this year dropped from 2018 while four improved. Organizational compliance includes staffing, communication and training required by the law, according to the Center.
The law was implemented in 2010, and from 2015 to 2018, 13 agencies lost both of their required plain language staff and either fell in the ratings or their ratings remained unchanged. Nearly a third of agencies lost one of those positions in 2019, according to Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa).
“It goes to show that government, I think, needs to do better to ensure that when a new administration comes in, the commitment to plain language doesn’t suffer,” he said. “We know that when there is a turnover in administration in practically all agencies, there can be a drop off in services but we just can’t let that happen when it comes to plain language.”
He also lamented what the Center found to be a growing compliance gap between agencies. Almost half of agencies received an A for organizational compliance, but Loebsack called the six failing grades unacceptable.