Who and what we graded in 2018
We evaluated 23 Executive Branch agencies, including all 15 cabinet-level departments, in terms of both writing and organizational compliance with the Plain Writing Act. This is the first time since 2015 we have evaluated organizational compliance (which covers internal staffing, communication, and training and which we had stopped grading in 2015 because agencies had been doing so well organizationally). For the separate writing grade, we evaluated two high-profile webpages from each agency: the homepage and the most-visited webpage, identified through 12-month usage data or, absent that data, via the public data on www.analytics.usa.gov.
- C replaced B as the average writing grade; see the one-page Report Card with all grades listed.
- Turnover spiked. Since 2015, 13 of 23 agencies in our report have replaced people in both of the two required plain language positions.
- Turnover hurt internal staffing, communication and training. Of those 13 agencies where turnover spiked, nine declined in organizational compliance, including three that failed it. Conversely, of the 10 agencies that retained a plain language official, eight maintained or improved in organizational compliance. See “Agency Turnover and Grade Trends for individual agency grade changes since 2015“.
- Organizational compliance, in turn, drove writing quality. Of the 11 agencies that dropped a grade in organizational compliance, 10 also saw their writing grade drop. Meanwhile, among the six agencies where writing grades have risen or stayed constant since 2015, all have retained a plain writing official and maintained or improved their organizational compliance. Staffing and training matter. See “Agency Turnover and Grade Trends for individual agency grade changes since 2015.
- Agencies forgot a plain language principle – focus on your audience. On too many homepages, self-promotional news crowded out tasks and information for users, while jargon and acronyms stayed entrenched (can anyone guess what NSOPW stands for?). Two exceptions earned A’s: homepages for the Small Business Administration and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
Anatomy of an excellent homepage
Anatomy of an excellent USDA page
Homepage that needs work
- Top-scorers made vital tasks easier. Judges lauded the Social Security Administration’s “My Account” page; Defense’s “TRICARE” page, serving the 9.4 million eligible for the military’s health plan; and USDA’s “Choose My Plate,” showcasing selections from the five food groups.
- Our list of most-visited agency webpages reveals that Americans seek help from federal agencies on everything from getting rid of bed bugs (EPA) and spotting signs of Lyme disease (HHS) to locating sex offenders (DOJ) and learning how turbines work (DOE). See the full list.
“With so much turnover, agencies need to recommit to plain language, especially training programs,” said David Lipscomb, who led this year’s Report Card. “Then writing grades will jump back up.”
“Here’s something all Americans can agree on — government webpages should be clear and easy to use,” said Congressman Loebsack. “That’s why I’m troubled that so many agency webpages are still filled with jargon and acronyms and focused more on themselves than the everyday people who need government services, data, and help. We can do better. And there’s a law on the books that says we have to do better.”
How we graded
We graded writing and organizational compliance independently, with a separate set of judges for each (3 judges for organizational compliance, 12 for writing). As we have for several years, we used the Center’s grading criteria, which we also use for ClearMarks, our annual plain language awards; criteria include understanding of audience, style, structure, and design. To ensure a consistent approach to these criteria, judges completed a norming exercise on sample webpages and had frequent check-ins with team leads and the overall Report Card lead, David Lipscomb. Once grading was complete, we averaged each agency’s homepage grade and most-visited webpage grade to arrive at their final writing grade.