Is Government writing growing more plain?

Posted on Nov 17, 2015 in Government, Plain Language Blog Articles

Report Card 2015The grades say it is…mostly.

As we do every year, the Center reviewed agencies’ plain language programs and some writing samples for the annual Federal Report Card, released today, November 17. Representative Dave Loebsack announced the results.

A general trend of improvement:

We assigned a Compliance grade and a Writing & Information Design grade each. The results revealed general growth toward clearer writing and better programs across the Government, but a few grades went down. Overall, agencies are making progress in using plain language, but we still saw some bureaucratic, overly technical style and organization that at times make readers work too hard. And very few agencies practice user testing.

A few other highlights encourage us:

  • Participation hit an all-time high: 23 agencies submitted materials for review, including for the first time all 15 Cabinet-level departments.
  • Compliance scores increased overall, and most importantly, all 23 agencies fulfilled the requirements of the Act.
  • In Writing & Information Design, 13 agencies improved while the grades of only five dropped.[1]
  • We saw no Ds or Fs in either Compliance or Writing & Information Design, and overall, a record number of agencies scored B or higher.

Who scored the best?

Social Security Administration had the highest combination of scores. The Department of Homeland Security was a close second. Both departments earned an A+ for Compliance and an A for Writing & Information Design. Both agencies were among the top scorers last year as well.

What did we look at?

In addition to reports about how the agencies comply with requirements like having a plain language web page, offering training, and appointing a senior plain language official, we asked each agency to submit two specific types of writing samples:

  • the agency’s “About Us” page as linked from its homepage
  • a public-facing document of its choosing

We also asked the submitters to describe the audience, purpose, and context for this document, as well as any user testing conducted to determine its effectiveness.

Center volunteers read the submissions and scored them against the same criteria we use to judge our annual plain language awards (by the way, The ClearMark awards season is ramping up right after the holidays. Catch our webinar about the process on December 3!). We also used Acrolinx, an electronic text analysis tool, analyze trends in the grammar and style and to give a “readability” score for each writing sample.

We added a few things to the process this year, always aiming to make the review more accurate and helpful to the agencies:

Human reviewers. As mentioned, we asked readers to judge the documents with their intended audiences and situations in mind.

The evaluation system. We scored the submissions against same eight criteria we used for last year’s ClearMark awards (did I mention these are coming up??):

  • Writing Style
  • Understanding the Audience
  • Manner or Voice
  • Structure and Navigation
  • Information Design and Presentation
  • Pictures, Graphics, and Charts
  • Overall effectiveness
  • Testing—Agencies who had tested the entries with end users and stakeholders earned bonus points

A combined Writing & Information Design grade. Last year these were two separate categories. We decided to merge these into a single score that reflects the quality of both.

Plus and minus grades. By giving grades like C+ or A-, we can make the feedback more precise and indicate more clearly where agencies have room to improve.

Here is one example from this year’s lower-scoring agencies, the Department of Defense. It’s not horrible gobbeldygook by any means (hence the passing grade), but it is less than engaging and reader friendly:

Opening paragraphs of the Department of Defense “About Us” page

On behalf of the Secretary of Defense and Deputy Secretary of Defense, we welcome you to Defense.gov, the official web site for the Department of Defense and the starting point for finding U.S. military information online. The home page for this site is located at http://www.defense.gov/.

The Secretary of Defense is the principal defense policy advisor to the President. Under the direction of the President, the Secretary exercises authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense. The Deputy Secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the DoD, is delegated full power and authority to act for the Secretary and to exercise the powers of the Secretary on any and all matters for which the Secretary is authorized to act.

Grader’s comments:

“This page contains useful information, but the text is heavy with passive voice, redundancies, and unnecessarily complex sentences. It is also weak on visual elements, doing a lot more telling than showing. Structurally, when do we find out what the Department of Defense actually does? That question is what would bring me to this page.“

Not a great read? Yes, but the good news is that a few years ago, a good “bad” example would have been much harder to read that this excerpt. Although this sample needs organization help and other tailoring for audience, it is not nearly the slog that some government documents have stereotypically been.

We congratulate all the agencies for passing, the agencies that improved over last year, and especially SSA and DHS, the top scorers!   They still have their work cut out for them, but federal plain writing officials and coordinators are clearly working at—and making progress in—leaving that stereotype in the past.

Read the full report on our website!

[1] Compared with the category “Writing” last year. We combined last year’s Writing and Information Design categories into a single category, Writing & Information Design.

About the author:

Dr. Crane Dr. Chip Crane is a writing consultant and trainer in Washington, D.C., helping clients with plain language in career development writing, technical writing, office correspondence, and other workplace documents. Chip also teaches medieval literature and technical writing at the University of Maryland.

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