Making public information clear
How we knew we needed a plain language program
Way back in 1998, Vice President Gore signed a memo setting up expectations that information from the Federal government would be easy for the public to understand. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, had tried a few writing programs in the past, but none lasted more than a year or so. While some of our information was written for scientists and lawyers, much was also of great interest to the public. We received many letters and phone calls from people asking for information because what we made available wasn’t clearly written. We knew we needed to get better, especially for that audience segment.
How we got started
When the Federal Plain Language program started in 1998, I was at FDA, in the Office of the Executive Secretariat – an office where many Federal Plain Language programs found their home. FDA has seven centers and many offices. After I expressed interest in leading FDA’s program, I drafted a message from the FDA Commissioner to all staff supporting Plain Language in all information meant for the public. Once he signed it and it was distributed widely, I started communicating information about the Federal Plain Language program, center by center and office by office. I reached out to each center’s office of regulations, training, and science, as well as the center directors.
After a meeting with the leads of each area, we set up a targeted training program for each center, including their senior staff. Every employee needed to see that their leadership was fully invested in doing this.
How we set goals and celebrated success
One important step was to include plain language criteria in each employee’s annual evaluation. All staff needed to show proficiency in writing plainly and clearly.
We also added a Plain Language Award that was given out in each center every year. Some agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, gave them out agency-wide in a special award ceremony, limited to Plain Language awards. FDA decided that the awards should become part of the regular annual award ceremonies to spread the word far and wide – not just to those interested in plain language.
How we trained our people
Our most important first step was to gather unedited documents from each center and use them to demonstrate how documents could be improved when written plainly. We showed a few before and after versions of these documents, as part of their training. Then we used other center documents as exercises. It was critical that attendees used some plain language tools and techniques to see how they improve their documents.
How we overcame naysayers
Many people remembered how many other “writing programs” FDA had offered or mandated over the years. None lasted more than a year or so, then it was back to business as usual. I believe the Presidential Executive Order followed by the agency head memo in support of plain language made the difference. Plus, the tailored training adapted to each center demonstrated that this was a program to be taken seriously. Over time, FDA received fewer requests for information because our messages were more easily understood.
How we kept going
We designated a plain language lead both FDA-wide, and in each center. We encouraged these plain language champions to assist staff when needed and to ask for help when certain documents were difficult to understand. All the writers at FDA were very proud when the agency won not just one, but two, No Gobbledygook Awards, presented by the Vice President himself.
About the author: Joanne Locke is a plain language writer with more than 30 years of experience. Over the course of her career, she has served as a Plain Language Advisor for the Department of Health & Human Services, or HHS, and the FDA. She also served as the Chair of the Federal Plain Language Action and Information Network and the Vice Chair and Co-Founder of the Center for Plain Language. While working at the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, she managed the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup. After retiring from the federal government, she had her own business, J Locke Consulting, offering plain language writing and editing services to both government and non-government businesses.