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U.S. agencies learning clarity

It isn't often that one hears the word "stellar" used to describe a federal form.

Nevertheless, that's the term Annetta Cheek, a leading advocate of clarity in how government communicates with citizens, uses to praise the form that took the Grand ClearMark Award this spring in the annual contest run by the Center for Plain Language.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau uses the form to lay out exactly what a home mortgage will cost. It shows in concise, clear terms and large print the interest rate and how the monthly payments break down. It breaks down which costs are fixed and which a homebuyer can shop for.

"This is a key form in that area because it really explains to people how much this loan is going to cost them in the long run," Cheek said.

The Center for Plain Language is part of a movement aimed at purging gobbledygook from government and private-sector communications and replacing it with simple, clear English. Each year, the center issues a report card on federal government agencies, and awards prizes in several categories.

The prizes include one of the "booby" variety for the document the judges find to be the year's densest and most confusing.

This year that dubious honor went to the Federal Motor Carrier Administration for a 17-page consent order telling trucking companies what they have to do to comply with the terms of a settlement on charges of safety violations.

Just a snippet: "This agreement and order may be executed in counterparts, all of which when taken together constitute a fully executed original."

Such language was enough to earn the regulatory agency the center's Grand WonderMark Award, so named because it's enough to leave readers wondering what the heck it means. According to the center, one judge commented, 100 percent of company owners complained, but the agency did nothing to make the document clearer.

"This is being read by truckers, for heaven's sake," said Cheek.

Deborah S. Bosley, chief executive of the for-profit Plain Language Group in Charlotte, N.C., said the government seems to be making slow but steady progress — with some notable exceptions.

"Obviously the IRS tax forms are still extremely difficult for people to fill out," said Bosley, also a member of the board of the Center for Plain Language.

As a former university professor, Bosley is particularly galled by the Department of Education's forms for students seeking federal financial aid. They are, she said, a "particular barrier" to a college education.

Among federal agencies with ties to Baltimore, the news is more encouraging.

The Social Security Administration, with headquarters in Woodlawn, posted the highest score out of 20 federal agencies last fall on the center's most recent report card.

The agency, which earned two As, followed up on that achievement by being named a finalist for the prize the center gives for the best agency website. The award went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Steven Patrick, the senior official in charge of plain language at the Social Security Administration, said there has been a strong commitment to clear communication at all levels of the agency, from acting commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin to front-line employees.

"People want to do a good job," he said. "People want to deliver the best possible service to the American public."

To do that, Patrick said, about 14,000 of the agency's almost 60,000 employees — nearly one in four — have taken an online or classroom course in plain language and writing.

He said the agency also created three videos on the topic that have been seen by 97 percent of its employees over the past three years.

Another Maryland-based agency with a strong track record is the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

"There's almost a mandate internally for things to be written in plain language," Bosley said. She attributed that to the agency's need to clearly explain complicated matters such as clinical trials to patients and taxpayers.

"It isn't a person's fault not to understand complex ideas," said Marin Allen, deputy director of public communication at NIH. "It's our responsibility to make them clear."

Cheek, a retired federal worker, said the plain language movement grew out of the 1990s drive led by then-Vice President Al Gore to "reinvent government."

That effort lapsed at the end of the Clinton administration, Cheek said, and the nonprofit plain language center was founded in 2003. The group began awarding the annual prizes five years ago.

The movement gained momentum in 2010, when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act. The law requires federal agencies to use "clear government communication that the public can understand."

"That seems to be having quite an impact," Cheek said.

The progress includes forms that are easy to fill in and to understand, Cheek said.

So can a federal form be a thing of beauty?

"Maybe not beauty, but close," Cheek said. "It's certainly a lot better than an ugly form."

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