Social Security Administration gets C's in clear communication

Advocates for plain language have issued their first report card on how clearly federal agencies communicate with taxpayers and others — and the Social Security Administration has drawn a pair of C's.

That put the Woodlawn-based administration in the middle of the dozen agencies assessed by the Center for Plain Language. The Washington-based organization promotes clear, easy-to-understand communication in government, business, nonprofits and academia.


On the first anniversary of the Plain Writing Act, the center graded each agency this month on how well it has met the requirements of the law and how well it has followed the "spirit" of the legislation. The Social Security Administration earned C's in each category.

The Department of Agriculture headed the list with an "A" for meeting the requirements and a "B" for honoring the spirit. The Department of Veterans Affairs took home a pair of F's.

"The mixed results of the first-ever plain language report card show that we still have a long way to go to make government forms and documents simpler and easier for taxpayers to understand," said Rep. Bruce Braley, the Iowa Democrat who sponsored the Plain Writing Act.

A spokesman for the Social Security Administration said the agency strongly encourages plain writing, "because it is important that our millions of public communications are clear and concise."

"Even prior to the Plain Writing Act, we began a massive overhaul of our online services, our notices, and even our internal instructions to adhere to the principles of plain language," spokesman Mark Hinkle said. "We know that we can do more to improve our communications."

But Hinkle also defended the agency, saying the report card focused more on the process of conforming to the law than the agency's actual communications.

The Plain Writing Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, requires federal agencies to train employees in plain writing and create and maintain a section on plain writing on its website.

It also requires agencies to designate a senior official to oversee its implementation and to designate a point of contact to receive and respond to the public's comments on implementation.

On future report cards, Hinkle said, "we hope to see more of an emphasis on actual writing."

Anneta L. Cheek, chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language, took up the cause during a long career in the Department of the Interior, the Federal Aviation Administration and Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review.

She described plain writing as " writing so that your intended audience ... can easily find and understand and use what they need from that material."

"Writers in the government, in any bureaucracy, really, are writing for their supervisor, they're writing for the attorneys, they're writing for the technical guy in the next office," she said. "They aren't thinking about the real end-user."

The Center for Plain Language assessed each agency's compliance to determine the first grade on the Plain Writing Act Report Card. The center worked with PLAIN, the federal plain-language group, to evaluate supporting activities undertaken by the agency to support the spirit of the act for the second grade.

Cheek said the center would issue a report card each year and assess more agencies in the future.


Plain writing report card

The Washington-based Center for Plain Language graded 12 government agencies on how well they followed the requirements of the Plain Writing Act and how well they followed the "spirit" of the act.

Department of Agriculture: A, B

Department of Defense: B, D

Environmental Protection Agency: C, F

Department of Health and Human Services: C, B

Department of Homeland Security: D, D

Department of Justice: C, D

Department of Labor: B, F

National Archives and Records Administration: B, C

Small Business Association: C, C

Social Security Administration: C, C

Department of Transportation: C, F

Department of Veterans Affairs: F, F