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Writing Grades Drop As Federal Agencies Struggle With Staff Turnover

The Center for Plain Language Releases Its Annual Federal Report Card

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2018­ /PRNewswire/ -- The Center for Plain Language has issued its annual Federal Plain Language Report Card. The report, announced by Congressman Dave Loebsack (D-IA), grades federal government agencies on their writing and organizational compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010 – the law that requires government writing to be clear, concise, and well-organized. Grades in this year's Report Card slumped, with C replacing B as the average writing grade.

Read the full report, including best and worst examples and a complete list of most-visited agency websites.

"Here's something all Americans can agree on – government webpages should be clear and easy to use," said Congressman Dave Loebsack.  "That's why I'm troubled that so many agency webpages are still laden 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."

The report card evaluated 23 Executive Branch agencies, including all 15 cabinet-level departments, in terms of both writing and organizational compliance (maintaining the staffing, training, and reporting required by the Plain Writing Act). We found a notable drop in both organizational compliance and writing quality since 2015.

  • C replaced B as the average writing grade.
  • Turnover spiked. Since 2015, 13 of 23 agencies have replaced people in both of the two required plain language positions.
  • Turnover hurt organizational compliance. Of those 13 agencies where turnover spiked, nine declined in organizational compliance (the staffing, training, and reporting required by law), including three that failed it.
  • Poor organizational compliance, in turn, hurt writing quality.  Ten of the 11 agencies that fell a grade in organizational compliance also declined in writing quality. Meanwhile, the only three agencies that improved their writing grade since 2015 also retained plain writing staff and improved organizational compliance. Staffing and training matter.
  • Agencies ignored 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 Financial Protection Bureau.
  • 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.

"With so much turnover, agencies need to restart their plain language programs," said David Lipscomb, who led this year's Report Card. "Then writing grades will jump back up."

The Center for Plain Language, a non-profit organization, helps government agencies and businesses write clear documents. The Center also urges people everywhere to demand plain language in all the documents they receive, read, and use. For more information, visit: centerforplainlanguage.org.

 

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SOURCE The Center for Plain Language

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