Building a plain language culture in the US Government

Posted on Jan 28, 2015 in Board News, Center News, Government

I’ve spent the last few months working on the 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card. The Report Card evaluates whether US Federal Departments comply with the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This year we also analyzed writing samples against best practices for both writing and information design.

The Compliance grades on the 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card improved significantly over 2013: Nearly all of the 22 departments we reviewed fulfilled the primarily administrative requirements of the Act. More importantly, the Writing grades (and increasing number of ClearMark Plain Writing Awards) show that agencies are embracing the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Government writing may really get easier to read and understand. If you are interested in the details, download the white paper.

The progress is encouraging. It feels like the Report Card (and the press!) drew attention to the issue in a way that nudged some agencies to act. Plain language is no longer a grass roots effort, but it also still not a pervasive part of the government culture yet. Insinuating a capability like plain language or usability into an organization’s culture takes time, effort, and consistent leadership. It also takes change, both at the organization and the individual level. For plain language to take hold, organizations – government and private industry alike—need to

  • recognize plain writing as an independent and desirable skill
  • provide tools and training
  • develop metrics and standards of excellence
  • recognize and reward achievements
  • publicize and celebrate successes.

We know anecdotally that some departments are well on their way to reaching these criteria. But I was curious how pervasive the progress really is. So, this year, when we asked for information for the Report Card, I also asked the plain language coordinators to tell whether their plain language efforts had infiltrated their organization’s culture. Answers were optional, but most agencies responded.

Does your department recognize plain writing as a unique skill?

Nearly 2 in 3 respondents reported that their organization recognizes plain writing as a separate, desirable skill in job descriptions and development plans. However, only a few consider it a core capability for all employees. Most departments encourage plain writing for only specific roles or “relevant staff.”

Does your department reward excellence in plain writing?

Several departments, including Agriculture, HHS, HUD, SBA and the Social Security Administration, recognize employees and give rewards for excellence in plain language. Others are developing awards programs. Recognition ranges from high status awards to paid time off.

Describe a plain writing success in your Department.

When asked about plain language successes, people described both internal and public-facing achievements. Internal milestones included

  • publishing enterprise tools, such as plain writing handbooks or style guides, and providing training programs tailored to staff communication tasking
  • improving the readability of key policies (such as sexual harassment)
  • establishing the Treasury “Tip of the week” to sharing techniques and keep clear communication top-of-mind
  • establishing a department-wide document testing program with training, tools, and a results-sharing archive.

Departments also touted public-facing successes, including

  • removing distracting, boilerplate language from documents, letters, and websites
  • working closely with scientists to develop technical content that non-technical readers can understand.

What are the barriers to change?

Enthusiasm for good communication, from both the agencies and the public is clear. However, organizational barriers can subdue even grassroots groundswells.

Many departments indicated that they still struggle to convince technical experts, like scientists, statisticians, economists, and lawyers, that complex concepts can be communicated accurately using plain language. Persuading experts that plain language does not means (overly-) simplifying their ideas requires patience, examples…. and data. Scientists think and speak in data. If you speak their language, they are more likely to listen and understand. (Think comprehension testing data.)

People also cited a lack of management support as a barrier to change. Managers need to recognize that good writing and document design requires iteration, review and, ideally, testing. Each of those steps adds time to the document design process. Before plain language can become the standard, workloads and project plans must shift to accommodate the additional effort.

Departments also identified the lack of advanced training as a barrier to progress. While using basic plain language principles can improve the readability of most documents, the writing, design, and information visualization strategies used to create health literacy materials for the general public differ from those used to draft regulations or to communicate scientific findings effectively. The Report Card results highlight information design, a topic that is skipped or glossed over in plain language awareness, as an opportunity space for improvement.

Finally, a few respondents noted the most basic challenge slowing the uptake of plain writing in the government agencies (or any organizational change for that matter). Change is hard.

“Plain writing is well accepted, and virtually everyone we work with in our agency supports government communicating more plainly. Still, getting people to change the way they do their work, sometimes for 30 or more years, is challenging.”
– US Government employee

What advice would you give to people seeking to establish a plain language program in their organization?

Finally, we asked what advice plain language coordinators would give to people starting up a plain language program. Here the responses were clear and consistent.

  1. Start small.
  2. Pick your battles.
  3. Collect data, including before-and-after examples, testing results, and return-on-investment calculations.
  4. Use the examples to engage senior leadership and secure support.
  5. Support staff with tailored training (remember the before-and-after examples?) and tools.
  6. Recognize successes.

Déjà vu all over again?

If this advice seems familiar, don’t be surprised. There is a large organizational change literature that effectively reduces down to this advice. More close to home, usability programs were at this same “How do we get there from here?” spot about 10 years ago. Today usability (or user experience) is considered an essential part of successful business and government agency strategies. Usability programs have matured. Plain language programs will, too.

We’re making progress

There is no question that the responses we collected describe plain language programs that are mostly in their infancy. But they also show that there is a stake in the ground. Important changes that will drive US government agencies toward a clear communication culture are happening at both the individual and organizational level. There will be (predicable) bumps along the way, but the process is starting.


About the author:


Kath Straub, Ph.D. leads, a user-experience design firm that provides interactive design and plain language research, design and training to governments and private industry organizations around the world. Her work helps clients understand their customers better so that they can communicate effectively, and interact intuitively and persuasively. Kath is also a member of the Center for Plain Language Board where she leads the Federal Plain Language Report Card project.