Simplifying Government-Speak

By en:user:Flembles (Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By en:user:Flembles (Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It's almost a given these days that the federal government is unpopular. A fall 2011 Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans hold negative views of it, and critics come from all sides. However, certain citizens, civil employees and lawmakers believe that a primary factor behind public disillusionment has to do with the fact that no one understands what government documents say. They believe that "plain language" needs to supplant government-speak.Proponents of plain language assert that the jargon, legalese and general unintelligibility of government documents are part and parcel of the bureaucratic red tape that everyone finds frustrating. A group called the Center for Plain Language encapsulates the movement's populist mission with its motto, "Plain language is a civil right."

At a time when revving up the economy is a top political priority, businesses large and small suffer when they can't figure out how to comply with regulations. Confusion frequently forces them to purchase "translation" services from lawyers and accountants. On the other side of the fence, government agencies waste resources trying to explain policies to citizens and businesses that online and print documents could do on their behalf if the writing were comprehensible.

Why is government writing so poor? One reason is because government workers in specific areas naturally develop jargon for professional use (as do specialists in many fields). This jargon is not decoded for the public. Also, when the civil servants who draft documents add in special-interest exceptions, CYA-digressions, and voluminous reams of legalese, concision is obliterated.

Fundamentally, writing clearly and concisely takes effort; it isn't easy. The federal government is trying to deal with the problem. It recently published a set of plain language guidelines, which were created to support the Plain Writing Act, passed in 2010. The act requires federal agencies to write all new publications intended for the public in a "clear, concise, well-organized" manner. Now working its way through Congress, another bill called the Plain Regulations Act of 2012 will strengthen plain language requirements. Nevertheless, any citizen without legal training trying to read either of these acts (PDFs here and here) will find them quite difficult to understand.