Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pushing the US govt for plainspeak

IF YOU want to understand Americans' frustration with Washington, you might start with the very words the government uses to communicate with them.
By Suzy Khimm

Take the Labour Department's explanation of health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers under the 2009 stimulus legislation: 'Generally, the maximum period of continuation coverage is measured from the date of the original qualifying event (for federal Cobra, this is generally 18 months). However, ARRA, as amended, provides that the 15-month premium reduction period begins on the first day of the first period of coverage for which an individual is 'assistance eligible'. This is of particular importance to individuals who experience an involuntary termination following a reduction of hours. Only individuals who have additional periods of Cobra (or state continuation) coverage remaining after they become assistance eligible are entitled to the premium reduction.'

What does that mean? Cobra stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, ARRA is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Essentially, it explains that certain laid-off or downsized workers can get special subsidies for 15 months after losing their employer-sponsored health coverage.

It is complicated information to absorb. But does it have to be so complex to read?

Anti-jargon warriors don't think so. A small but growing band of civil servants, lawmakers and consultants is leading the charge against bureaucratic legalese. Their mission isn't just to cut down on government forms in triplicate. They believe that Washington is dysfunctional on a more basic level, and that to fix it, the public must understand what the government is telling them.

It's a movement that's deeply populist in spirit, with its aim to bring the government closer to the people. Ultimately, proponents believe they are protecting the sanctity of not only the English language, but the republic itself.

'How can you trust anyone if you don't understand what they're saying?' asked Dr Annetta Cheek, a 25-year government veteran who now runs the non- profit Centre For Plain Language. 'When you're supposed to be a democracy, and people don't even understand what government is doing, that's a problem.'

Plain-language advocates acknowledge that slaying jargon within the federal bureaucracy often seems impossible. But their ranks are growing in Washington, and officials loyal to the cause are embedded in the highest levels of all three branches of government.

Complaints have made their way to the White House.

'We hear from small businesses in particular that government documents are too unruly and long,' said Mr Cass Sunstein, head of President Barack Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. 'It does breed a kind of frustration that isn't good for anybody.'

Under the Obama administration, this populist push to keep legalese from getting between the government and the people has gained ground. Late last year, Mr Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, which mandates that all publicly available government documents be written in a 'clear, concise' manner, requiring all agencies to push new writing standards.

The law converges with Mr Obama's pledge to create a more open, transparent government, Mr Sunstein said. It also builds on a longstanding battle against jargon in Washington. People have been railing against bureaucratic legalese for half a century. But as the government's responsibilities have grown, so have its rules and regulations, plus all the exceptions and carve-outs that interest groups have lobbied to include. Ensuring that all these provisions are technically and legally correct means it's often easier for the government to produce documents that are complicated, and hard for the public to understand, than ones that are simple.

According to the federal government's primer on plain language at www.plain, the father of the movement was John O'Hayre, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, who resolved that convoluted prose had made government documents impossible to read.

His 1966 book Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go helped launch the movement. A few years later, then President Richard Nixon required the Federal Register to be written in 'layman's terms' rather than 'government-ese', followed by an executive order from the president after next, Mr Jimmy Carter, which told federal agencies to solicit information 'in a simple, straightforward fashion'.

Though the following president Ronald Reagan rescinded Mr Carter's order, Mr Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1998 when he was president, requiring all federal employees to use short sentences, the active voice and 'common, everyday words'. But such executive actions haven't stemmed the bureaucratic jargon.

The Plain Writing Act has no penalties for complex writing, and the federal government has yet to appoint its own editor-in-chief to monitor agencies' efforts.

Connecting good governance with plain language has been a long struggle. In his famous 1946 essay, Politics And The English Language, George Orwell argued that the government's 'lifeless, imitative style' produced groupthink. 'One can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy,' he wrote.

But, left to their own devices, agencies tend to develop inscrutably dense vocabularies. Representative Bruce Braley, the House's point man for plainspeak, said: 'Smart people with great educations feel they have to demonstrate that they know what they're doing by writing in complex, impossible-to-understand language with lots of clauses and subparagraphs.'

He singled out lawyers as the movement's most stubborn foe. 'Anything that grew out of legal training that has 'wherefores', 'hereinafter', 'party of the first part, party of the second part', 'as referenced in subclauses A, B and C'. Those types of things are impossible to follow,' said Mr Braley, himself a lawyer.

Often, Dr Cheek said, it's possible to use plain language in such documents without diluting or diminishing their legal meaning. 'It's a very common excuse. Some people try to tell you that it's dumbing down.' A few departments and agencies have taken the early lead in the war against bureaucrat-speak. The Department of Veterans Affairs began a massive effort to rewrite its benefits rules in the early 2000s after an internal review and more than a dozen court decisions cited the need to clarify its confusing, ponderous style, as two officials wrote in a 2004 report. Its Regulation Rewrite Project has taken years, but preliminary feedback has been positive: After recasting one benefits form in plain language, the response rate to it rose from 35 per cent to more than 55 per cent, saving the agency millions of dollars.

Convincing the rest of the government to follow suit may seem like its own bureaucratic nightmare: Every agency must appoint plain-language 'officers', post guides and issue reports to comply with the 2010 Act.

One agency to have openly embraced the movement is among the most loathed institutions in Washington: the Internal Revenue Service. This year, the IRS won the Centre for Plain Language's top prize for intelligible writing in public life, the 2011 ClearMark Award.

Receiving the award in May, Ms Jodi Patterson, who runs the IRS' Office of Taxpayer Correspondence, gave a speech that distilled the essence of the plain-language movement. 'They may not want to hear from us,' she said. 'But at least they'll understand what it is we want them to do.'

The writer is an economic policy reporter for The Washington Post.