A decade ago, Congress passed the Plain Writing Act to ensure that people can understand the information they receive from federal agencies. Since 2012, the Center for Plain Language has issued a yearly report card evaluating how well agencies follow this law.
This year we evaluated 20 Executive Branch agencies, including all 15 cabinet-level departments. Agencies earned grades between A and F for both organizational compliance, covering the staffing, training, and annual reporting required by law, and writing, focusing on how easy it is to find, understand, and use information the public needs. For this year’s writing grade, we looked at two online pages from each agency:
- An urgent help page, selected from top .gov pages in Google search results for urgent queries, such as, “Help, veteran thinking about suicide.” We graded these same pages in 2019.
- The agency’s main page focused on the Coronavirus.
- Most agencies are missing the mark when communicating about the pandemic. Agencies have an important opportunity to help the public with the new Coronavirus pages they have all published. But right now, these pages are disappointing. Here are common problems we saw:
- They focus too much on the agency, not enough on the public. As the government’s official plain language site instructs, “Focus on what users want to know.” But most Coronavirus pages give prominence and far too much space to agency achievements. As a result, our judges had to struggle to find information, services and benefits relevant to the public. And every agency we graded – not just those focused on healthcare – has information the public needs related to the pandemic and the ways it has changed our lives.
- Even at the sentence level, these pages feature agencies or secretaries as the main actors, instead of readers. The personal pronoun “you” is hard to find on these pages.
- They are cluttered with acronyms, jargon, and marketing language. The Commerce Coronavirus page (see below), for example, expects readers to know what USPTO and MBDA are, while Homeland Security uses the top of its page to promote its own “efforts in preparedness and readiness” that “have facilitated a speedy, whole-of-government response.”
- They include long bulleted lists topped by vague headings. When agencies do provide links to useful resources, they too often lay them out in endless, unstructured lists (see HUD’s Coronavirus page for one example).
- Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) kept their Coronavirus pages focused on the public. We were especially impressed with CFPB’s Coronavirus page, since it models how an agency can provide important Coronavirus information that is not focused on health
- Only three agencies earned A-level grades for writing. The Department of Health and Human Services was alone in earning an A, while both Veterans Affairs and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earned an A-.
- Most improved awards go to two urgent help pages: the State Department’s “Passport Application Status” page and Interior’s “Two Ways to Purify Water.” The teams working on these two pages followed the advice our judges gave them last year, and their efforts paid off.
- Half of agencies are doing an excellent job following the law’s basic requirements, but a third are failing. This year, 10 of 20 agencies earned an A for organizational compliance, which covers the staffing, training and reporting required by the Plain Writing Act; seven others failed. Why the big gap? It’s a trend we’ve noted in recent report cards: some agencies have struggled to meet the law’s requirements after the change in presidential administration led to dramatic turnover. The Department of Transportation, for example, hasn’t updated its required plain language page or published its required plain language report since 2015.