the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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Putting it Plainly

Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, writes about new guidance to Federal agencies to help make government information clear to the public and streamline government response resources.

Every day, the Federal Government is engaged in communication with the American public. When Federal agencies are explaining how businesses can comply with legal requirements, or informing people about Federal services and benefits, they should write clearly and avoid jargon. But far too often, agencies use confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language.  Such language can cost consumers and small business owners precious time in their efforts to play by the rules.

The good news is that relatively small efforts to communicate more clearly can minimize that burden. Take this example: the Federal Communications Commission used to receive so many questions from the public about its requirements for ham radio operations that five full-time employees were needed to provide answers. After the requirements were written in plain language, questions dropped off so dramatically that all five of those employees could be reassigned to more pressing activity at the Commission.

In short, writing in plain language can make a huge difference. That is why President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 into law last October. By improving government communications, the Act will not only save money but also facilitate two-way communication between agencies and the public and make it is far easier for people to understand what they are being asked to do.

To promote the use of plain language in Federal documents, I issued final guidance (pdf) last Wednesday to help Federal agencies to comply with the Act.  Whenever officials provide information about Federal benefits and services, produce documents that are necessary for filing taxes, or offer notices or instructions to the public, they must now write clearly and concisely. In addition, agencies must train employees to use plain language, create a plain writing section of their websites, and designate a senior official to oversee the implementation of the Act.

These requirements may not sound like giant steps, but they can yield big improvements in efficiency. A study in Business Horizons, the journal of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, found that when a US Navy memorandum was rewritten into plain language, it took 17-23 percent less time to read. The authors concluded that, the Navy “could save annually anywhere between $27 and $73 million [in 1991 dollars] worth of wasted reading and rereading time if its officers alone used the plain style.”

As our economic recovery continues, strong implementation of the Plain Writing Act is vital to ensuring that we are minimizing burdens on American business and the public as a whole.   

Cass Sunstein is Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs