Communication with agencies
- In July 2021, the Center notified the Plain Language contacts from each agency about what we would be grading, when, and what information we needed from them, including information on audiences, purposes and any research they had done on the pages to be graded.
- All information provided by the agency teams was then included in the evaluation material provided to judges.
- In late August, lead judge David Lipscomb gave our 15 writing judges their assignments, with three judges reviewing and providing written comments on each page.
- To ensure a consistent approach, all writing judges completed a “norming exercise” on sample webpages at the beginning of grading, and judges had frequent check-ins with team leads and the overall Report Card lead, David Lipscomb.
- From September 1 to September 24, the writing judges graded the agency pages according to the writing criteria below.
- Once writing grading was completed in late September, we averaged each agency’s Coronavirus page grade and its FOIA request page to arrive at their final writing quality grade.
- During September, the two compliance judges, Karen Thomas and David Lipscomb, assessed the 21 agencies according to the compliance criteria below.
Our criteria for grading “Organizational Compliance”
- We verified (through emails, online postings, other means) that each agency had in place the required staffing – including a Plain Language Officer and a plain language contact (the law does not specify whether these may be the same person — and in some cases they are)?
- We visited each agency’s Plain Language page (sometimes titled “Plain Writing” page). This page is required by the Plain Writing Act. On these pages, we evaluated the following required by the law:
- Has the page recently been updated?
- Are the names of the plain language staff included on the site? Is there a way for the public to contact this staff?
- Is there a recent annual plain language compliance report published on the site (within the last two years)?
- Is the agency’s plain language training & education described on the site or within a recent annual compliance report?
Our criteria for grading “Writing Quality”
Understanding audience needs
- Is it clear what the audiences should learn or do using this entry?
- Are the writing, tone and presentation appropriate for the audiences?
- Did you get the sense that the writers genuinely want the audiences who use this product to succeed?
Style or voice
- Do the writers follow plain writing principles? For example, do writers use relatively short sentences and active voice, while avoiding noun-strings, hidden verbs (nominalizations), and delayed verbs?
- Does the voice seem sincere and credible?
- Do the tone, choice of words and conversational style convey respect for the target audience? For example, do the writers use reader-oriented language, including “you” and “your”?
Structure and content
- Are the sections clearly organized and labeled?
- Will the labels help audiences predict what is in each section?
- Do the writers create effective transitions between sentences, paragraphs and sections?
- Is the content presented in an order that tells a story or helps audiences complete a task?
- Do they convey key content while effectively winnowing unnecessary details?
- Do the writers provide relevant information in a balanced way, without overselling or underselling their points?
Information design, navigation, and graphics
- Do the typography, color, and white-space grab and guide the audiences’ attention?
- Do the layout and presentation make the product easy to scan?
- Can you tell by glancing where the important information or action is?
- Does the navigation offer a visible, guided path through the content?
- Do any pictures, graphics, or charts support the content?
- Will the target audiences be able to find, understand and act confidently using what they learn in this entry?
- Will the product help the authoring organization achieve its business goals (for example, increased customer self-service, enhanced mission, better consumer decisions)?
- Would you use this product as an example of effective plain writing and information design?