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Bringing Plain Language to the Bureaucracy

October 29, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

Dealing with the federal government can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA) has introduced a bill into Congress that would require the federal government to write in language that is as easy as possible for people to understand.

His bill, the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007, would apply to all document that explain how to obtain a benefit or service from the government, including letters, notices, and instructions. Government agencies would be required to write all new documents – they would not be required to rewrite the old ones – according to Federal Plain Language Guidelines that are clear, concise, well-organized and generally written to help those who fill them out.

Anyone who’s done their own taxes knows the headache of trying to understand pages and pages of confusing forms and instructions,” Rep. Braley said. “There is no reason why the federal government can’t write these forms and other public documents in a way we can all understand.

Bryan Garner, author of the book Legal Writing in Plain Language describes plain language as “the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea. You can still choose interesting words. But you’ll avoid fancy ones that have everyday replacements meaning precisely the same thing,” he writes.

Requiring the government to use plain language would save everyone time and money, yet according to Stephen Barr of The Washington Post, Braley’s bill has received mixed reviews from other on the Hill. “Previous efforts to improve regulation writing have only partially succeeded, because many regulations deal with politically sensitive issues and sometimes are shaped by high-stakes lobbying in Congress and at the White House,” Barr explains. “Backers may not want them to be too clear.”

Braley’s bill has been referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he serves on. We’ll be tracking it to see how it fares against all the “high-stakes lobbying” against it.

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