The Worst Writing In the Federal Government Gets Failing Grade

Advocates against gobbledygook are trying to shame federal agencies into keeping it simple

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By law, government agencies are supposed to communicate with the public in plain language, facilitating democracy with a clear, conversational tongue. But two years after the Plain Writing Act went into effect, some bureaucrats are still churning out prose that sends red pens flying and heads spinning. And advocates for plain language are hoping a little grade-shaming might help.

On Tuesday, the Center for Plain Language doled out their second annual report cards for 20 federal government agencies and departments, based on how well they’ve complied with both the letter and the “spirit” of the law. “Some agencies are doing much better than others,” says Rep. Bruce Braley, the Iowa Democrat who introduced the Plain Writing Act and is pushing another bill that would require federal regulations to get a makeover, too. “I am troubled by the number of agencies who are still not taking this requirement seriously.”

Here’s a sample of jargon-packed writing from the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration that got a failing grade:

States must use the schedule to determine Federal military wages for UCX “first claims” ONLY when the Federal Claims Control Center (FCCC) responds to a request for information indicating that there is no Copy 5 of the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty (DD Form 214) for an individual under the social security number provided.

The Department of Agriculture aced their tests with this language:

The gypsy moth is one of the most destructive pests of trees and shrubs to ever be introduced into the United States. Gorging themselves on the leaves of up to 300 host species, gypsy moth caterpillars defoliate and weaken the trees that make up our national forests and community landscapes.

On a call with reporters, Braley lauded the Social Security Administration, which came away with the top marks, earning an A for both following the law and writing in a manner that people can understand without a lawyer present. The U.S. Department of Agriculture came close behind with an A and B.

Other agencies will likely need have their report cards signed by their parents. The Department of Labor earned a C for compliance and an F for plain writing; the Treasury Department received an F and D, while the Department of Homeland Security earned an F and C.

To determine the grades each agency earned for their plain writing, volunteers at the Center for Plain Language took sample documents and gave them the equivalent of a linguistic physical, gauging metrics like average sentence length, the use of passive voice and whether writers took prepositions too far. Annetta Cheek, chair of the center’s board of directors, concedes that the documents they reviewed are just a “suggestive” sample. Judging compliance was more straightforward, determined by factors like whether the department had built the required website for plain writing queries and had a dedicated employee working on the issue.

When asked why government agencies aren’t all getting straight A’s, Braley says bad habits die hard among bureaucrats. “A lot of it has to do with institutional culture,” he says. “Writing in gobbledlygook for so long at these agencies, they can’t see a different way of thinking about how they write for their intended audience.”

Cheek, a former federal government employee, says many writers are attached to tortured legalese. “There’s a lot of resistance because people seem to feel that it doesn’t look official enough,” she says. “There’s also the problem that plain writing is hard. It’s much easier to drag out last year’s report and update the statistics and not worry about the clarity of the communication.”

While the law sets out requirements for using plain language in documents that tell citizens about federal services or programs, it doesn’t have teeth to inspire sweeping attitude changes. Braley says he hopes that the report cards will help give him ammunition to go back and beef up enforcement mechanisms at some point. In the meantime, mumbo jumbo detractors have to hope agency employees care about their grades.

Here is a complete list of the marks from the 2013 report card: