Plain-language report card for federal agencies shows mixed bag

  • Mon Jul 23rd, 2012 10:12pm
  • News

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — In the battle to reduce federal gobbledygook, the results so far are mixed, according to the first report card issued since congressional passage of the Plain Writing Act.

The Department of Agriculture received an A while the Department of Veterans Affairs received an F from the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of plain language by business and government.

Congress in 2010 passed the Plain Writing Act to require federal agencies to write documents, such as tax returns and college aid applications, in simple, easy-to-understand language.

“We’re making progress, but we still have a very long way to go,” said Annetta L. Cheek, chairwoman of the center, which graded 12 federal agencies on their compliance with the requirements – and spirit – of the law.

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, the law’s author, has asked the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold a hearing on its implementation.

“It is clear that improvement is needed in implementation,” he wrote the committee’s leaders. “Correct execution of the law will cut burdensome red-tape for small businesses, save taxpayers money, and help all Americans understand government forms and documents.”

When his bill came before the House in 2010, Braley said: “Anyone who has done their own taxes knows the headache of trying to understand pages and pages of confusing forms and instructions.”

The Internal Revenue Service was not included in the report card but was recognized by the center last year for improving the notices it sends to taxpayers. The center plans to evaluate more agencies in the future.

In the case of the Agriculture Department, the center said, the agency has developed a plan to implement the law and established a plain-language Web page, among other things.

“We are reducing text and using shorter sentences in our documents; using more tables and lists rather than lengthy paragraphs; and eliminating unnecessary jargon, acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations,” the department said in a report.

On the other hand, the center was critical of the VA, saying the appointment of an official to oversee implementation of the law is “apparently all they have done.” There was no immediate response from the VA.

Cheek said that federal agencies are paying more attention to their language, noting that membership in a group of federal employees dedicated to promoting the use of plain language has nearly doubled.

Some members of the group, she said, have told her that some of their colleagues “used to ignore me but now they’re coming to me for advice.”