The Politics of Plain Language


In 2011, legislation took effect at the federal level that had ramifications for all government entities, including state and local governments. That’s because, in October 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This Act meant that by October 11, 2011, all new federal publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents had to be written in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner that follows the “best practices of plain language writing.”

According to the Center for Plain Language—a nonprofit advocacy organization for plain language in government, business, nonprofits, and universities—plain language is, simply, a civil right.

Why is plain language so important and why should we care?

For one thing, the Plain Language initiative—to eliminate government-speak in documents normal people are supposed to be able to understand—is now also mandated on most to state and local levels; in fact, it’s already there in some sectors. For example, even before the Presidential signature hit the Plain Writing Act in October 2010, Colorado’s then-Governor Ritter had signed HB10-1166 in April of that year, requiring increased readability of automobile, health care, dental, and long-term care insurance policies. The Plain Language in Insurance Policies Act took effect on January 1, 2012. Similar federal legislation from 2009 already included credit card industries that do business in Colorado.

Plain language saves time and money.

In a plain language document, people find information faster and understand it more accurately, which can save organizations both time and money. For example, when one office of the Veterans Benefits Administration rewrote a standard letter they sent to veterans, phone calls dropped from an average of 1.5 calls for each letter sent to .27 calls.[1] But even better, more veterans applied for benefits because they understood whether they were eligible and what they needed to do. More veterans got the help they needed because VBA rewrote this one letter.

Plain language is not without its detractors, however, who believe it’s ineffective and inefficient to mandate plain language documents. For example, the Colorado Group Insurance Association, a non-profit organization within the healthcare industry, opposed HB10-1166, saying that replacing well-known language with less specific terms exposes consumers and insurers to fraud or lawsuits, and increases costs passed on to the consumers.[2]

Plain language makes policy meaningful to people.

Colorado seems to be on the right track with its plain language baby steps. There is also a glimmer of revenue on the horizon for beleaguered budgets if agencies become more efficient through plain language communication. More importantly, plain language makes seemingly unintelligible policy meaningful to people, and sends a clear message about what government does, what it requires, and what services it offers. Plain language is the only policy for all citizens to have access to the vital information they need.

Till next time, I’ll be WordWatching … 


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[1] Work done by Reva Daniel with the Jackson, Mississippi, VBA office and reported in Daniel, “Revising letters to veterans.” Technical Communication, 42(1), 1995, 69-75.

[2] 2/12/2010 by Cindy Brovsky in The Colorado Statesman


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