How did we grade the agencies?
Each year, the Center for Plain Language evaluates how effectively federal departments comply with letter and the spirit of the Plain Writing Act of 2010. In 2015, each department received two grades:
- Writing & Information Design
The Center worked with CPoint Consulting to design and conduct the Report Card analysis. Each agency reported about its Plain Language program by filling out a worksheet submitted with the documents for review. Plain language representatives were asked
- to report information showing compliance with the specific requirements of the Plain Writing Act (for instance, the URL for their Plain Writing website and training provided in the past year)
- describe their plans for implementing further steps to make more of their agency’s writing clear
- submit two specific types of writing samples:
- the agency’s “About Us” us page as linked from its homepage
- a public facing document of their choosing
- describe the audience, purpose, context, and user testing of their samples.
Center volunteers read the submissions and scored them against the Center’s criteria for plain writing. We also used Acrolinx, an electronic text analysis tool, to provide a statistical analysis of grammar ans style trends and a “readability” score for each writing sample. For most agencies, these scores were generally consistent with the readers’ reviews; however, the Acrolinx analysis revealed some trends that earned extra marks to a few agencies and dropped a couple down half a letter grade.
Chip Crane, Federal Report Card Lead, and Annetta Cheek, former Center Chair, briefed agency reps at a Federal PLAIN working group meeting in June to help Departments understand the requirements and prepare their materials.
Compliance scores whether agencies fulfill the requirements of the Plain Language Act of 2010. Agencies get points for
- Having a webpage that describes the agency’s plain language efforts
- Providing a feedback channel for people to complain about documents that are hard to understand or praise documents that are written clearly
- Responding to feedback in a timely matter (including our request for documents)
- Having a link to the plain language webpage on the Agency homepage or Open.gov site
- Submitting the agency’s Plain Language Compliance Report and Implementation Plan
- Naming the person in charge of the plain language program
- Training staff to write in plain language
Writing & Information Design
Do writing samples consistently demonstrate plain writing principles to make documents easier to read, understand, and use? Graders asked questions like
- Does the document reflect an awareness of intended audience?
- Does the document limit the use of passive voice?
- Does the writer use common words and avoid or define jargon?
- Is the content direct and concise, or does the document use more words than necessary?
- Is the structure clear?
- Does the typography vary (such as bold sub-headings or different fonts) to help readers organize and understand the content?
- Does whitespace (paragraph spacing, indentation) help reinforce the relationships among the main ideas?
- Does color draw emphasize and enhance important information?
- Do pictures, charts, or graphics reinforce what the words say?
Read more details about how we graded agencies in the full White Paper.
Honor roll or detention?
Agencies that did well got a commendation letter from Congressman Dave Loebsack.
Want Plain Language information or a contact at a specific agency?
Analysis for the Report Card happens between April and October. To get involved, contact Chip Crane.