Back when Annetta Cheek first went to work for the federal government in the 1970s, she was tasked with writing regulations for the updated Archeological Resources Protection Act, a replacement for the American Antiquities Act of 1906.
“The 1906 act was a page long, and the implementing regulations which came out a couple of weeks later were about three pages long,” Cheek recalled. “I was writing a regulation that ended up being about 40 pages, implementing an act that was about 20 pages long. And it did basically the same thing.”
Here’s a real short version of what both bills established: You’ll get in big trouble if you mess with artifacts on public land; the president gets to decide which artifacts are a big deal and merit creating historic landmarks; if you want to do research in any of these places, you need to get a permit.
Of course, no one in government put it quite that way, either in 1906 or 1979. But three pages is still less onerous than 40.
“Somehow or another, we got into a very bad place,” Cheek said of Uncle Sam’s increasing penchant for long-winded legalese. “I really don’t know how we got there, but I’ve thought about that a lot.”
Last fall, at the prodding of Cheek and other “plain language” advocates, Congress passed a bill — the thankfully acronym-free Plain Writing Act of 2010 — that aims to finally cut out all the “disallowances,” “dispositions” and “probate proceedings” that stand between the American people and their government. The bill (all two-and-a-half pages of it!) required government agencies by this week to come up with plans to write all public communication from here on out in plain English so that people can actually understand it.
It doesn’t sound like a very difficult mandate. In fact, you’d think it would take more effort — and a thesaurus, and a legal dictionary, and a lot of time — to write:
“If you disagree with this disallowance and believe the evidence now of record is sufficient for us to award you benefits, please refer to the enclosed VA Form 1-4107, Notice of Procedural and Appellate Rights, which explains your rights to appeal.”
“If you think we shouldn't have turned down your claim, you should write and tell us. We've attached a form, which explains your rights.”
… to borrow from one of the examples Cheek took with her to Capitol Hill.
But it turns out writing in simple English is an actual skill — and one Cheek says most people in government don’t have.
“What happens is, even when the technical people write [regulations] first, the attorneys are never happy with it. So they rewrite it,” she said. “Eventually, I think people just sort of give up and say, ‘Well here, you’re going to end up writing it anyway, so just go ahead and write it.’”
Cheek thinks it takes three people to write any good regulation: a policy expert, a lawyer and a writer (no offense to the policy expert and the lawyer). The Plain Writing Act of 2010 doesn’t go that far but requires agencies to train their employees on how to write in plain English and to designate senior officials to make sure they do.
As a citizen, you probably don’t regularly troll through the Federal Register for arcane regulations you wish you better understood. But all of us, at some point, have to figure out how to file our taxes, enroll in Social Security, collect unemployment benefits, file for the G.I. bill or make an appointment at the VA hospital. And this is why plain language matters.
Crummy wording in instructions can mean the difference between a veteran collecting disability payments or not, or an immigrant violating visa requirements or not. The Center for Plain Language, which Cheek and several of her former government colleagues founded in 2004, even goes so far in its tagline as to call plain writing a “civil right.”
“A lot of the government is about compliance with requirements — you must do this, that and the other thing,” Cheek said. “We’re telling people what to do all the time, but we’re telling them in a way they don’t understand, so we don’t get compliance.”
There’s also one other compelling argument for simple syntax: Terrible writing (as Cheek suggests we call plain writing’s opposite) is expensive. When people don’t understand the letters they get in the mail or the forms they have to fill out, each case of confusion requires a bureaucrat to individually explain things, which isn’t a particularly efficient use of government resources.
Cheek cites the example of a Veterans Benefits Administration office in Mississippi that rewrote in plain language a standard letter mailed to veterans. Confused phone calls to the local office — requiring, let’s assume, 10-15 minutes each — fell from 1,200 to 200 a year, and led to more veterans taking advantage of the benefit. Similarly, an initiative in Great Britain to rewrite a customs form in plain language reduced the error rate from 55 percent to 3 percent, saving the agency about $45,000. Cost of the redesign: $3,500.
“The government has never figured out how much poor communication costs because it doesn’t admit that it communicates poorly,” Cheek said. But she borrows an estimate from a British bureaucrat based on the experience there. “I think government could save 20 percent if everything it wrote was in plain language.”