Civic Design

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Plain language is indispensable

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This is no small thing. Have you seen legislation and government documents, lately? The Act calls for writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and consistent with best practices for the subject or field and the intended audience. 

Seems simple enough. To ensure that everyone is clear about plain language, the President issued a memorandum that provides guidance to heads of executive departments and agencies on implementing the Plain Writing Act. The six-page memo walks the talk -- that is, it lays out a phased approach for ensuring that Federal communications are clear and plain.

I think we can all agree that getting straightforward information from the government is desirable. But plain language is fundamental to the success of civic design. When communications are simple and plain, it is much more likely that citizens will know about the benefits they're entitled to -- and that they will be able to enjoy those benefits. Imagine what it would be like if everything from Social Security reports and letters from the Veterans Administration (both of which have been doing a beautiful job with plain language for years), to trademark applications, to government contracts, to instructions on ballots -- were clear and simple. 

What a world this would be. 


One of my favorite parts of the memorandum explains that each agency must have a page on their website explaining how they are meeting the requirements of the Act. 

Download the entire memorandum PDF here.

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