This year’s Federal Report Card yielded surprising results for several agencies. The Center looked at a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page and a data infographic, assigning a separate grade for each. The FAQ pages earned each agency its Writing and Information Design grade. Last year we graded a sampling of forms and instructions from each agency. If you have read the white paper that accompanies the Report Card itself, you’ll know that this year’s grades were lower than last year’s by about 11%. (We didn’t grade an infographic last year, so we don’t have a comparison.)
When compiling these results after our volunteer graders finished their review, I was surprised: Why would FAQ pages get lower scores, on average, than a government form—a genre of writing that some would see as the bane of plain language? And most of us would expect an FAQ page to be more reader-friendly than other documents. I don’t believe we can definitively answer why, but I see at least four possible contributions to this shift:
Lowered attention to plain language?
As my colleague Dr. John Hussey, one of our graders, commented during the press release of the Report Card, the change of administration has brought shifting priorities in many areas for federal agencies. Regardless of one’s politics, plain language in general may have held a lower priority this year for some agencies.
Graders could have been more rigorous than last year, expecting (appropriately) the FAQ pages to be more reader friendly. Last year, grading forms, graders may have expected much worse than they received. This year, they may have held the agencies to a higher standard because we do tend to expect FAQ pages to be user-friendly.
More rigorous grading?
In addition, the graders and I worked in advance with some outside samples to “norm” or calibrate expectations this year. We were not aiming to make the grading more strict, but the process of considering others’ grading standards may well have led graders to target the middle ground of B’s and C’s instead of the higher range of B+ and A grades.
Agencies’ emphasis on their FAQ pages
Finally, for at least some agencies, FAQ pages themselves may not be receiving the attention they deserve (or more properly, that the public deserves). Components of agencies may be putting their plain language attention on other types of documents. One may overlook making sure a FAQ page is clear and engaging in order to ensure another public web page draws readers in and helps them with a specific service. The FAQ page may be taken for granted or may not be seen as a crucial part of the agency’s service to the public.
A few additional highlights from the white paper:
- The average grade in both categories (Data Infographics and Writing & Information Design) was a B.
- USDA scored highest overall with an A in both categories while Social Security earned the highest single grade, an A+, for writing and information design on their FAQ.
- Treasury and HUD received the lowest scores for their FAQ pages, a D+, and Commerce earned the only D+ for an infographic.
- Commerce and Health and Human Services dropped by two whole letter grades in Writing and Information Design. Social Security jumped up a whole letter grade.
The FAQ page has become so widespread that we take it for granted that any organization, product, or process will offer one. Users quickly look for an FAQ page to orient themselves to the site they visit, perhaps even before they actually develop their own questions. This relatively new genre is popular and powerful because the rhetorical use of questions to identify topics creates for readers a sense of active participation in the shared knowledge.
As a genre of professional writing, the FAQ page truly exemplifies the mission of plain language because the information is inherently targeted toward a less-knowledgeable reader who is actively seeking that information for a specific use. Reading a well-written FAQ page is easy; writing one is not—as the lower writing scores this year testify.
About the author: Dr. Chip Crane is a writing consultant and trainer in Washington, D.C., helping clients with plain language in career development writing, technical writing, office correspondence, and other workplace documents. Chip also teaches medieval literature and technical writing at the University of Maryland.