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Major Legislative Win for the Plain Language Movement. The What?

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 18 2010

There's something so absolutely, delightfully geeky about this. Where to begin? First off, did you know that there's a PlainLanguage.gov? The deal is thus: for at least a decade and a half now, a group of federal employees -- a cabal, perhaps, or a cell of agitators, at least -- have been working, behind the scenes, with little attention, to advance the cause of plain language in government. There's even a network: PLAIN, or the Plain Language Action Network. See how wonderfully straightforward that is? It says what it means, and means what it says.

The big, big news is that yesterday, the plain language movement scored a major coup. The House of Representatives passed, on a vote of 386-33, the Plain Language Act. (The vote was bipartisan, for sure, but all thirty three nays were Republican.) The Senate passed a very similar bill through committee in December, which means that we're one step closer to the achieving the ultimate goal of requiring that the federal government stop talking in jargon and gobbledygook. The PLA would require that the federal government write its reports, documents, letters, and forms in language that "the intended audience can easily understand and use," writing that is "clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing." You could, if you were feeling critical, argue that referencing "plain writing" in a definition of plain writing is disconcertingly recursive. But plain language is a journey, not an absolute.

Stayed tuned for how the plain language movement is relevant for us here. But first, some more of this social justice enterprise's delicious history.

The intra-government plain language movement, according to a timeline compiled by an employee of the Department of Health and Human Services, finds its roots in the 1970s. A founding text: Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go, by an employee at the Bureau of Land Management. But the real surge of momentum came more recently. In the late 1990s, Warren Buffet (seriously, this is quite possibly the best topic ever) became one of the patron saints of the plain speak movement. In an introduction to the SEC Plain English Handbook, Buffet fleshed out the essence of what straight talk means. "When writing the Berkshire Hathaway annual report," explained the oracle of Omaha, "I picture my sisters, highly intelligent, but not experts in accounting or finance." Then there was Al Gore, who went the more political route. "Plain language," the then-vice president reportedly said, "is a civil right."

Okay, you've been sufficiently patient. What, in particular, does the plain speak movement, and its landmark victory yesterday in the form of the passage of the Plain Language Act, have to do with what we do here? Plenty. Or, at least, some. Plain language, you see, holds a particular import for those in government whose job it is to use the web to communicate with, engage with, and inform the American public. For example, in its white paper to then-incoming President Barack Obama in November of 2008, the Federal Web Managers Council railed against the proliferation of "governmentese" on government websites. "Agencies," they wrote, "should be required and funded to conduct regular content reviews, to ensure their online content is accurate, relevant, mission-related, and written in plain language."

Therein, say sources within government, lies the big, big problem.

Agencies aren't funded to ensure that what goes up from the government online is written in ways that normal human Americans can understand. There's funding, finally and thankfully, for content management systems to organize information on the backend, databases to store content, and even, now, new media directors to spearhead agency efforts to do the best job possible by the agency online. Money is being appropriated to ensure that government data is secured, and agency networks protected. There's just not, not really, money to make sure what government is putting out onto the web makes any sense. Here's how one to-remain-nameless official at a major department puts it: "Making plain language a requirement, rather than just a best practice, means agency web managers will be able to make a stronger case for allocating dollars towards content producers and writers." What can't happen is that the web managers in each department are left with the task of translating every form and letter produced inside the bowels of their agencies into readable English (and Spanish, so on). Writes our web manager friend, "It isn't easy to simplify some government content, so you need that expertise to be truly successful. Plain language would mean better service for citizens, which is what every federal web manager is striving to provide."

There you have it. Plain language means better government websites, which means better government. Such a thing is movement-worthy. By this point, you might be curious about what plain language actually looks like, in the wild. PlainLanguage.gov demonstrates. Here, first, is a sample letter from HHS's Medicare Beneficiary Service, explaining to an American what happens after his or her request for an investigation into Medicare fraud:

Investigators at the contractor will review the facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor may conduct special audits of the providers medical records. Often, the contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and imprisonment.

And here is that same letter, plain language-ized:

We will take two steps to look at this matter: We will find out if it was an error or fraud. We will let you know the result.

I get it.