Report: Federal agencies are becoming better communicators

WASHINGTON — Coming froma federal agency most often associated with senior citizens, the poster is striking: An upside-down sky diver screams as she falls through the clouds.

"Have you helped someone plan their Someday?" it asks in bright, yellow letters that match the sky diver's goggles. The "Someday" — with a capital "S" — is retirement. The poster is a product of the Social Security Administration's campaign to get people to sign up for online accounts.


While the image is catchy, it also represents a serious — and increasingly successful — effort by the Woodlawn-based agency to improve communication with the public. Last week, the Center for Plain Language, a group that promotes clear communication, gave Social Securitysome of the highest marks in the government for writing and presentation.

"Some organizations have a safety culture because it's very critical to their mission," said Steven Patrick, associate commissioner of the SSA's Office of Public Inquiries, a leader in the agency's effort to communicate clearly. "In many ways I think of plain language as critical to our mission."


Federal officials have sought to eliminate legalese since at least the 1970s. President Richard M. Nixon called for the Federal Register, in which the government publishes executive orders, agency rules and public notices, to be written in "layman's terms." President Jimmy Carter signed executive orders requiring agencies to draft easy-to-understand regulations.

Proponents say clear language saves time and money. If instructions are clear, they say, people spend less time filling out forms and trying to understand benefits. And plain language makes it more likely that citizens and businesses will comply with a regulation the first time.

Still,words such as "grantsmanship," excessive use of passive voice and an endless stream of acronyms remain staples of government writing.

President Barack Obama signed the latest effort to weed bad prose from official writing in 2010. The Plain Writing Act requires agencies to train employees in writing and to dedicate a section of their websites to the issue. But the measure carries no repercussions for agencies that ignore it.

And so each year the Center for Plain Language, in an effort to keep the pressure on, grades agencies on their progress. Nineteen out of 22 departments reviewed this year received an A for complying with the act. Eight, including Social Security, also received an A for clear writing.

Patrick said an eight-person team at Social Security screens a wide range of communications, including marketing materials, forms and even letters the agency sendsto lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Officials also use software to analyze writing samples for style and clarity.

"The grades reflect our strong commitment to clear communication at all levels of the agency," acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin said in statement.

On the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Department of Education turned in some of the worst grades in the report: a D for compliance and a C in writing.


"The U.S. Department of Education is dedicated to writing in plain language for all of its various audiences, including teachers, parents, education organizations, researchers and the general public," spokeswoman Raymonde M. Charles said in a statement. "We are committed to continuous improvements and are taking steps to be in full compliance with the law."

The departments of State and Interior both received F's for failing to submit writing samples, center officials said.

An Interior Department spokesperson said the employee originally contacted by the Center for Plain Language about participating in the review had since retired. But, as of Friday, the department's website still listed that official as the contact for plain-language issues.

The center provided emails dating back to July documenting invitations to the Interior Department to take part. In its statement, the agency said it has no record of the request.

"We are disappointed that the score card reveals that the 'F' was given for lack of response rather than any deficiencies in work," the agency said in the statement.

Despite a few bumps, the plain language group's Annetta Cheek said, the federal government is generally improving its communication. Sixteen of 22 departments fared better in the report card this year.


"We are finally seeing some significant progress," said Cheek, a retired federal employee. "It's hard to write plainly. The result looks easy but getting there is not easy. Writing bureaucratically is much easier."

Colleen Blessing, a senior editor at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, described a shift in communication that began in part when the first federal websites came online. The agency's reports suddenly had a much wider audience than just industry types based in the United States.

"We are writing for the whole world here, and we want people to understand our story," said Blessing, an economist by training.

The agency, part of the Department of Energy, collects and presents data on energy markets — much of it complicated. Blessing set out to make it accessible.

She created a style guide for the agency, banned undefined acronyms and pushed writers to be consistent for the sake of clarity. Because the agency tries to stay neutral on policy and market fluctuations, she also hunts for loaded language, such as "rebounding prices."

Writers are encouraged to use "many," not "numerous." Words and phrases like "utilized," "impacted by" and "in order to" make her frown.


Blessing's most important role might be translating technical language.

"I try to read as an educated lay reader," Blessing said. "I'm proud of the fact that I'm not afraid to say to an author, 'I don't understand that.'"

Her work is paying off. The Center for Plain Language gave Energy an A for compliance with the Plain Writing Act and a B for writing.

"Five years ago this was like pulling teeth," Blessing said. "We've really gotten past that."


Samples of federal writing

Before: "Our close partnerships with State partners and the electricity industry to provide knowledge, resources, and support in developing effective risk-based approaches which help identify impacts in advance of events will continue to play a crucial role in helping to ensure that the nation is ready for the challenges of today's dynamic environment.

After: "Risk-based approaches, developed with State and the Electric industry partners, determine the impact of events before they occur. They help our nation prepare for the challenges of today's dynamic environment."

Before: "Named after two former U.S. senators, Sherman Minton and Homer Earl Capehart, the eight-story Minton-Capehart Federal Building is located in the central business district of Indianapolis across from Memorial Park and within blocks of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse."

After: "The eight-story Minton-Capehart Federal Building is located near Memorial Park and the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. It is named after former U.S. senators Sherman Minton and Homer Earl Capehart."

Source: Center For Plain Language