This is the 10th time the Center for Plain Language has issued a yearly Report Card evaluating how well agencies follow the Plain Writing Act.
For this 10th anniversary, we evaluated 21 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 the Plain Writing Act, and writing quality, focusing on how easy it is to find, understand, and use information the public needs. For this year’s writing grade, we graded and then averaged two online pages from each agency: the main FOIA request page and the main Coronavirus page, which we had also graded last year.
Learn more about our methodology:
Key Findings for 2021
Writing quality: Overall the average writing grade was a B-, unchanged from last year. But this year’s average was pulled down by poor marks for the FOIA Request pages, where the average grade was a C+. Within that average is a far more positive story: agencies are doing a better job communicating about the pandemic.
- For the Coronavirus pages, the average mark jumped up from a C to a B, driven by big improvements from Treasury, the Social Security Administration, HUD, and SBA.
- Compared to last year, this year’s Coronavirus pages do a much better job keeping the focus on readers’ needs and addressing those needs directly in plain language.
- A new problem is that some agencies are overloading readers with pandemic information, instead of highlighting the specific information each agency can best provide.
- Honors for most-improved Coronavirus page go to HUD (from a D to a B) and Small Business Administration (from a C to an A).
- As they did last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earned an A for its Coronavirus page, providing a model that’s clear, well organized, and user-focused.
- On the FOIA pages, most agencies barraged readers with extraneous information and legal language.
- To fix these pages, agencies need to lay out a clear path for making a FOIA request, and cut out jargon and acronyms.
- An excellent model to follow is the Department of Homeland Security’s FOIA request page, the only one to earn an A.
Organizational compliance: Two-thirds of agencies surveyed this year earned an A on organizational compliance (how well they meet the staffing, training, and annual reporting requirements of the 2010 Plain Writing Act).
- Honors for most-improved in compliance go the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and especially the Department of Interior, whose compliance grade jump all the way from an F to an A+.
Barbra Kingsley, Chair of the Center for Plain Language, summed up the results from this year’s 10th-anniversary Report Card: “While the writing grades show that there’s still plenty of room for improvement, the compliance grades highlight the ways agencies have embraced plain language over the 10 years we’ve been producing this report.”
The Social Security Administration provides a perfect example of that transformation. Back in 2012, when the Center first launched its Federal Report Card, SSA earned a C for compliance. Since then, it has earned straight A’s in compliance and either A’s or high B’s in writing.
An Exemplary FOIA Request Page
A FOIA Request Page That Needs Work
An Exemplary Coronavirus Page
(one the SBA improved dramatically since last year)