This is the 11th time the Center for Plain Language has issued a yearly Report Card evaluating how well agencies follow the Plain Writing Act.
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 Contact Us page and the main Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request page, which we had also graded last year.
Learn more about our methodology:
Key Findings for 2022
Overall, the average writing grade was a C, a slight decrease from the B- average in 2021. Within that average is a far more positive story about the federal government’s commitment to plain language: one third of agencies saw an improvement in their overall writing grade, with the Department of Agriculture seeing the most improvement (C to A).
- On the Contact Us pages, the average writing grade was a B-.
- For the lowest scoring pages, judges noted agencies did not provide a straightforward, concise path for members of the public to get in touch. To fix these pages, agencies should establish a user-focused approach to their web content, navigation, and design.
- An excellent model to follow is the Social Security Administration’s Contact Us page, the only one to earn an A+.
- On the FOIA request pages, the average writing grade was a C-, which represents a slight decrease from last year’s average writing grade of C+. This is partially attributed to a change in the 2022 grading rubric for the Federal Report Card, adapted from the ClearMark Awards, which removes the requirement for agencies to submit information about user testing and success measures.
- Several judges noted agencies’ use of extraneous information and legal language on FOIA request pages. To fix this, agencies need to lay out a clear path for making a FOIA request, and cut out jargon and acronyms.
- Excellent models to follow include the highest ranked pages: the Department of Agriculture’s FOIA request page, Department of Homeland Security’s FOIA request page, and Social Security Administration’s FOIA request page.
Nearly two-thirds of agencies surveyed this year earned an A on organizational compliance, which evaluated how well they meet the staffing, training, and annual reporting requirements of the 2010 Plain Writing Act.
Honors for most-improved in this category go to the Small Business Administration, whose compliance grade jumped from a F to a C. Other agencies improving their compliance grades include the Environmental Protection Agency (from an A to an A+), State Department (from an A to an A+), and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (from an A- to an A+).
An Exemplary FOIA Request Page
Judges’ Comments on the Department of Agriculture’s FOIA Request Page
“The page is structured such that a reader can scan down the page to get a good sense of information within. Content flows well with some introductory text followed by a list of drop-down menus, with the categorized information making it very easy for a reader to scan and see which topic would address their needs.”
“The content is error-free. There is a lot of information that is organized into the main sections in a drop-down menu, which can help readers use the document. There are bullets, numbered lists, and the text gives clear directions step-by-step.”
“The use of two different colors, blue for headings and black for content, is helpful for scanning.”
A FOIA Request Page That Needs Work
Judges’ Comments on the Department of Commerce’s FOIA Request Page
“The page does not give a clear explanation of what FOIA is. Instead, the top of the page (the most valuable “real estate”) is dedicated to the internal structure of the Department of Commerce’s FOIA program. This information isn’t helpful to most of the public. Meanwhile, the most basic information about FOIA is buried under the “Frequently Asked Questions” tab at the bottom of the page. Presumably, the average member of the public is coming to this page to learn how to make a FOIA request. This information is in the second row, definitely under the “fold” (the point at which a reader has to scroll). Consider putting these important points higher on the page so readers can find it more easily.”
“Most of the information on this page faces inward, to the organization’s needs, rather than outward, to the user’s needs.”
“Several sentences on this page are long, and some use passive voice. Instead, break those down into shorter, more active sentences. For example, consider this sentence: “A FOIA request can generally be made by any person, to any federal agency, and only requires that requesters reasonably describe the records they are seeking and comply with agency regulations for making such requests.” You might revise it like so: “Generally, any person can make a FOIA request of any federal agency. Requesters must describe the records they are requesting. Requesters must also follow the agency’s rules in making a FOIA request.”
“Much of the page’s content uses jargon, passive voice, and complex syntax that all make reading more difficult.”
“The inconsistent icons detract from the page’s credibility and don’t help users identify the sections. For future iterations, consider reworking the page’s design and revising some of the more difficult language. You might also try to reorder the page to put more basic tasks (info on how to make a request, for example) higher on the page.”
An Exemplary Contact Us Page
“The page is well-sectioned and makes excellent use of links, colors, fonts, sizing, bolding, bullets, and imagery to highlight important information. For example, COVID-19 is still an issue, so the writers included a COVID-19 update link at the very top of the page, rather than cluttering the page with that information.”
“The web page is clear in its intended purpose to provide information readers seek. It is evident that the content is to assist those looking for the most sought-after information the agency has. The page is clear, addressing questions that readers are most likely to ask. The content appears complete and accurate.”
“The page has clear and concise language and the reader is addressed directly. The image at the beginning with the “How can we help?” sets a congenial delivery of content. The icons used in the “Ways to Contact Us” assists the reader in quick identification of means available. The tone is very cordial and personable, facilitating comprehension. Presenting content in the form of questions is an easy way to follow information provided.”
“This webpage also has a link at the top that immediately translates the page contents to Spanish. The format of the Spanish page is identical to the English one, so readers know that they are getting the same information.”
A Contact Us Page That Needs Work
“The page is largely a list of links, rather than a page organized by the most common needs of users.”
“There is nothing substantial that explains the links or provides assistance via SEO that would help users understand the purpose and intent of the page other than perhaps coming across it by accident.”
“Consider changing the photo. On my laptop, the picture of the HUD building is so large that it overwhelms the text below it. It could be much smaller (or not there at all). When visiting the page from a mobile phone, most people are going to ignore the photo or take the message, “HUD is a huge building.” You may be trying to send the message, “We have a lot of people who are here to help you.” A better choice is to focus on people and homes.”
What We Graded in 2022
Contact Us Pages
As our new selection for the 2022 Federal Report Card, we graded each agency’s Contact Us page based on the important role it plays in government transparency and accessibility. By providing the public with a single place where they can find contact information to ask questions and share feedback.
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request pages
All agencies evaluated in 2022 have an established FOIA request page. In instances when there were multiple pages devoted to FOIA requests, we evaluated the main page—the one listed first when you Google the agency’s name and “FOIA Request.” Our rationale was this main page is where a user would most likely go first and we needed a way to ensure consistent evaluation across agencies. Judges were instructed to focus primarily on the main page, while also examining any linked page that is crucial to completing a FOIA Request—such as a “Make your FOIA Request” page. For these vital subpages, judges were to ensure that they would enable, not impede, a user from completing their request. Overall, judges were reminded to keep their focus on the user, with one question foremost: Can a user find and understand what they need to complete a FOIA Request?
Below is a consolidated list of hyperlinks to the Contact Us and FOIA pages graded by 2022 Federal Report Card judges.
How We Graded
We graded writing and organizational compliance independently, with separate judges for each (1 judge for organizational compliance, 16 judges for writing). As we have for several years, we used the center’s grading criteria for the 2022 Federal Report Card writing grades, which we also use for ClearMarks, our annual plain language awards. Writing grade criteria include understanding of audience, style, structure, and design. To ensure a consistent approach to these criteria, judges completed a norming exercise on sample web pages and had frequent check-ins with team leads and the overall Report Card lead, Brittany Brown. Once grading was complete, we averaged each agency’s Contact Us webpage grade and FOIA request webpage grade to arrive at their final writing grade.
Our criteria for grading “Organizational Compliance”
- We verified through emails, online postings, and 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, which is sometimes titled a “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 the page?
- 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 page to succeed?
Style or voice
- Do the writers follow plain writing principles? (for example, short-ish sentences with active voice)
- Does the page feel credible and sincere?
- Do the tone, choice of words and conversational style convey respect for the target audience?
- Do they avoid jargon?
Structure and Content
- Are the sections of the page 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 and Navigation
- Do the typography, color, and whitespace grab and guide the audiences’ attention?
- Do the layout and presentation make the page 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 the pictures, graphics or charts map to and support the content?
- Will audiences understand the point of the chart or graph?
- Do the visuals help audiences understand important points better or guide them on how to take important steps?
- Conversely: Are the images and graphics included merely as decoration? Or would the product be easier to understand if the writers had chosen more or different graphics?
- Will the target audiences be able to find, understand and act confidently using what they learn on the page?
- Will the page help the authoring organization achieve its business goals (for example, increased customer self-service, enhanced mission, better consumer decisions)?
- Would you use this page as an example of effective plain writing and information design?
Who Did the Grading
The Center would like to thank the following volunteers who gave their time and expertise to review pages for the 2022 Federal Report Card. The Center also thanks Circuit Media for assistance compiling the federal report card this year and making it accessible on our site. You have made the world a little clearer.
Sharon Archer is a Procurement Analyst at the Department of Energy, where she is a member of the Plain Language Working Group, editor of the DOE Acquisition Guide, and the agency Industry Liaison. She also serves on FAR teams that draft federal acquisition regulations. Sharon was a Contracting Officer and policy writer for the National Archives and Records Administration and U.S. Department of the Treasury, where she provided annual training for the acquisition workforce. She is published in Contract Management and is a Certified Professional Contracts Manager. Sharon holds an MBA from The Ohio State University.
Brittany Brown (lead judge) is a board member at the Center for Plain Language. She is the digital communications lead at NASA headquarters in Washington, where she manages the Emmy Award winning NASA Television channel, oversees one of the most powerful and most followed social media presence in the world, and helps manage the Webby Award-winning flagship website www.nasa.gov, which averages more than 5 million weekly page views. Based on her passion for teaching others about social media, she developed a social media management certificate program at Georgetown University, where she is an adjunct instructor.
Jamerlyn Brown is a Senior Communications Manager for Data Storytelling at Intuit QuickBooks where she helps develop, build, and execute on QuickBooks’ data communications strategy in support of its business goals. She has a decade of experience in communications, marketing, and business development. Her expertise and passion focus on making complicated data with social impact accessible and engaging. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and French Literature and a master’s degree in Film from Columbia University.
Annetta Cheek (team lead) is a founder and former Chair of the Center for Plain Language. She led the effort for the 2010 Plain Writing Act and developed the Federal Report Card to measure its success. After writing government regulations in her early career, Annetta became chief plain language expert on Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government, as well as chair of the interagency plain language group PLAIN. She is former Chair of the International Plain Language Federation and currently helps steer the working group developing ISO standards for plain language. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.
Kate Devine is a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Education, where she is Editorial Team Lead in the Writing Division of the Office of Communications and Outreach; she is also the agency’s Plain Language Officer. Among previous positions held, Kate owned a start-up publishing and consulting company and was also an analyst at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She has an M.S. in agricultural economics from Rutgers University and an M.S. in education from St. Joseph’s University. She is also a certified Project Management Professional.
Beth Gaston has held a wide range of writing jobs: newspaper reporter; magazine writer; copy editor; public affairs representative; chief of staff; and trainer for leadership courses. She’s not sure if it’s nature or nurture, but with a mother who is an English teacher and a father who is an engineer who loves to read, Beth was destined to be a science writer. One of her prized possessions is an inscribed dictionary that her father gave her mother when they were first dating. Currently, Beth is the liaison to the University of Maryland for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Beth Landau is a writer, editor and educator who makes complex information engaging and accessible to a wide variety of audiences. She is a plain language specialist and the owner of BEL Writing Services, which offers professional writing and editing services and workshops. She also coaches writers working on narrative nonfiction theses and manuscripts. Beth is an active Center for Plain Language volunteer and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. She has an M.S. in Education from Walden University and an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.
Joanne Locke is one of the co-founders of the Center for Plain Language and also served as a bureaucrat for nearly 30 years. Now, she is a plain language consultant. When she’s not editing documents, she’s happiest spending time as a volunteer at her local animal shelter.
Hamilton Lopezcruz is a professional, marketing executive specializing in public affairs and outreach to external stakeholders. Hamilton possesses almost two decades of service in the Department of Defense with the most recent assignment at Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas. In this role, he leads the command’s efforts to sustain brand compliance and branding strategies. He is originally from Guatemala and is a soccer fan and an avid traveler.
Ellen Lovett is a civil servant Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Army and retired U.S. Army Reservist who has a wide range of experience in communications, advertising, and marketing roles.
Ian R. Mackenzie has been an adjudicator for over 20 years. He is currently an adjudicator with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board in Canada. Ian is also a lawyer by training and prior to becoming an adjudicator worked for trade unions as well as for the Government of Canada. Before becoming a lawyer, Ian worked as a proof-reader and editor in both the private and public sectors. Ian served as the compliance judge for the 2022 Federal Report Card and he is a Center for Plain Language board member.
Casey Mank (team lead) is the co-founder of Bold Type, a certified women-owned training firm. She designs workshops, webinars, and coaching for professionals so that they can write more clearly and effectively at work. Casey joined the Board of the Center for Plain Language in May 2020. She teaches writing at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies and McDonough School of Business. She has a master’s degree in English from Georgetown and a BA in English from Muhlenberg College.
Beth A. Martin is a User Experience Designer/Digital Services Expert in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Office of Personnel Management. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she teaches UX design.
Valerie Mongello is a lifelong public servant and communications professional with over 20 years of experience as a public affairs officer with the federal government. She is a former active duty Marine and currently serves as a senior communications advisor at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. She has a master’s degree in Public Administration from Troy University.
Ginny Redish is one of the founders of the Center for Plain Language. The author of Letting Go of Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Ginny has taught and consulted for four decades. She was project director of a federally-funded plain language project in the late 1970s, the first director of the Document Design Center through the 1980s, and a pioneer in usability and user experience design. Even in “semi-retirement,” Ginny enjoys helping turn gobbledygook into information that people can find, understand, and use. Ginny holds a PhD in Linguistics from Harvard University.
Bridget Sellers is a writer, editor, and researcher. She earned a master’s degree in English from Georgetown University and a BA from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She has worked as a writer-editor or writing teacher for organizations such as the Georgetown School of Nursing and Health Sciences, the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid, and Bold Type.
Britney Walker (team lead) is a senior communication advisor within the Department of Homeland Security. With more than 15 years of experience in both public and private sectors, Britney has transformed corporate communication teams and reinvigorated public affairs programs—all while devising effective strategies to drive innovation and achieve successful outcomes. While specializing in crisis communication, media relations, external partnerships, and strategic storytelling, she is an advocate for clear and concise communication. Britney has a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and an MBA in organizational change and development.