The art of the possible –
moving a federal government
to plain language
Dr. Annetta L. Cheek
Lisbon | 12 October 2010
Presentation Outline
1. Before the bill - how plain language got
started in the US federal government
2. The bills – how w...
1. Before the bill
How it all started
• In the early 90s, some federal employees
started pushing for plain language
• In 1994, they held thei...
PLAIN has a great website
How PLAIN supports plain language
• Holds monthly meetings on plain language topics
• Offers free half day training to any...
Clinton Administration Initiatives
• The Clinton Administration, 1992 through
2000, was a highpoint in plain language in t...
• Clinton issued a presidential memo in 1998
that PLAIN helped write -
http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/gov
mandates/...
Clinton Administration Initiatives -2
• Vice President Gore started an awards program – the
no-gobbledygook awards
http://...
And then came the Bush
Administration
2. Battling for a bill
Since plain language seemed to have stalled in
the Bush administration, plain language
advocates de...
How US Congress works
• In most cases, to get a bill through Congress,
you need to get the same bill introduced in
and pas...
How do you get a bill introduced?
To have any hope of success on Capitol
Hill, you need either—
• Lots of money, OR
• Time...
Well we didn’t have lots of money
So we started with a friend of a friend who
worked on the Hill.
And she directed
us to several
other offices that
might be...
So we started calling lots of people
And then we visited many of the same
people--whether they really wanted us to visit
or not.
And we gave them all a CD with lots of
information about plain language.
This included a draft bill. We had several
versions, tailored to the interests of the office
we were visiting.
And of
course we
had the draft
that did
everything
we wanted in
a bill.
We visited and called and visited
and called for 4 months:
We finally found someone interested in a bill--
Bruce Braley, Freshman Democrat from
Iowa, and a trial attorney
And a few months later
• We also found a Senate sponsor – Daniel
Akaka, from Hawaii.
Writing the bill
• Once we had sponsors, we could think about
writing a draft that they might introduce
• We started by de...
The best of all possible bills
• Addresses regulations
• Addresses documents written for the public
• Includes key element...
Politics is the art of the possible.
Otto Von Bismarck, remark, Aug. 11, 1867
What was in the 2007 bills
• Regulations
• Documents written for the public
• Key elements of plain language
• Government-...
• You have to be flexible. You aren’t
going to get everything you want
• We really wanted to cover regulations,
but we los...
• And you have to be ready to provide
possible solutions to problems
• For example, the legislator drafters inserted
in an...
• We had a guidance document on
http://www.plainlanguage.gov/ for years,
buried on a page entitled “guidance”
• So we chan...
Once the bills were introduced
• We started making more calls and having
more meetings, trying to get co-sponsors,
targeti...
• We also asked for letters of support for the
bill from important organizations, like
– the National Small Business Assoc...
What happened to the 2007 bills
• The House bill, introduced first, passed
376 to 1—a huge victory.
• The Senate bill was ...
In 2009
• Both sponsors from 2007 introduced
similar bills early in the session
• The House bill passed, 386 to 1
• And th...
What do the bills do?
Here’s what the current bills say (this is
somewhat different from what they said when
they were fir...
Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to improve the
effectiveness and accountability of
Federal agencies to the public by
pr...
Definitions
Writing that is clear, concise, well-
organized, and follows other best
practices of plain writing appropriate...
This is not the definition we wanted, and it’s
not even well written. But this was a place we
had to compromise to get the...
Agency responsibilities
Within one year of the Act, use plain
language in any new or substantially revised
document covere...
• Communicate the requirements of this Act to
employees;
• Train employees in plain writing;
• Establish a process for ove...
• Create and maintain a plain writing website, within
the domain of the agency’s homepage, to:
– Inform the public of the ...
Reports
• Agencies must post an annual report on
their websites reporting how the agency is
doing implementing the act.
• ...
Guidance
• Within 6 months of the Act, the Director of the
Office of Management and Budget must develop
guidance on implem...
Where are we now?
• In March, the House bill passed, 386 to 33.
• Once again, Bennett of Utah put a hold on the
Senate bil...
What’s next?
• Still have to get the Senate bill to a floor vote
• Then the House has to vote on it again, since getting
B...
And if we don’t succeed this year
• We’ll try again in the next Congress
And if we do succeed this year
• We’ll be back next year, trying to get one that
addresses regulations
3. Promoting plain language in a public
agency
• Moving a large agency toward a plain style of
communication is difficult....
Gather evidence
Find trouble spots in your organization where
there is pain caused by poor communication:
• too many forms...
• Find some plain language case study that is as
similar as possible to your situation – start by
looking at “Writing for ...
• Find some good before and after examples –
try looking in
http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/inde
x.cfm
• You can cre...
Find a champion
• Find someone as high in the organization as
possible who likes the idea of improving
communication
• Fin...
Do a pilot project
• Even if you can’t find a champion, find some
manager who will let you redo a document
that’s causing ...
• Test the document with users – 4 or 5 people
going over the document with you can
highlight trouble spots
• Ask them (on...
• Also evaluate the response to the document
before and after you revise it
• This can be simple – you can keep track of
–...
Start a plain language group
• Find other employees who are concerned
about clear communication
• Meet regularly to hear p...
Start an awards program
• Give awards for best original documents and
best rewrites
• Get a sponsor – as high in the organ...
Start a training program
• Offer short training programs free to your
organization’s staff
• Do document workshops, where ...
Have reasonable expectations
• Your agency won’t change overnight
• Remember, you are changing the culture of
your organiz...
Remember
• There are other people out there in other
organizations fighting the same battles
• The battle is worth it – it...
Dr. Annetta L. Cheek
Chair, Center for Plain Language
annettalcheek@gmail.com
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
Art of the possible   annetta cheek
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1. Before the bill - how plain language got started in the US federal government
2. The bills – how we are battling to get Congress to pass a bill requiring the government to write in plain language
3. Promoting plain language in a public agency

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Art of the possible annetta cheek

  1. 1. The art of the possible – moving a federal government to plain language Dr. Annetta L. Cheek Lisbon | 12 October 2010
  2. 2. Presentation Outline 1. Before the bill - how plain language got started in the US federal government 2. The bills – how we are battling to get Congress to pass a bill requiring the government to write in plain language 3. Promoting plain language in a public agency
  3. 3. 1. Before the bill
  4. 4. How it all started • In the early 90s, some federal employees started pushing for plain language • In 1994, they held their first “Plain English Workshop” – focusing on clear regulations • The group started meeting regularly, and still meets monthly in Washington, DC. It’s now called PLAIN
  5. 5. PLAIN has a great website
  6. 6. How PLAIN supports plain language • Holds monthly meetings on plain language topics • Offers free half day training to any federal agency – has training at least 8000 employees in these courses • Developed the “Federal Plain Language Guidelines” for agencies to use - http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/rea der-friendly.cfm
  7. 7. Clinton Administration Initiatives • The Clinton Administration, 1992 through 2000, was a highpoint in plain language in the government • Many agencies were very active in plain language – the Securities and Exchange Commission – Veterans Affairs – the Social Security Administration – Health and Human Services
  8. 8. • Clinton issued a presidential memo in 1998 that PLAIN helped write - http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/gov mandates/memo.cfm
  9. 9. Clinton Administration Initiatives -2 • Vice President Gore started an awards program – the no-gobbledygook awards http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/award_win ning/nogobbledygook.cfm • The awards attracted a lot of press attention • They built enthusiasm among federal employees
  10. 10. And then came the Bush Administration
  11. 11. 2. Battling for a bill Since plain language seemed to have stalled in the Bush administration, plain language advocates decided they would try to get Congress to pass a law requiring the government to communicate more clearly.
  12. 12. How US Congress works • In most cases, to get a bill through Congress, you need to get the same bill introduced in and passed by both chambers – the House and the Senate • That means we needed two sponsors and two bills
  13. 13. How do you get a bill introduced? To have any hope of success on Capitol Hill, you need either— • Lots of money, OR • Time, • Persistence, and • Contacts.
  14. 14. Well we didn’t have lots of money
  15. 15. So we started with a friend of a friend who worked on the Hill. And she directed us to several other offices that might be interested.
  16. 16. So we started calling lots of people
  17. 17. And then we visited many of the same people--whether they really wanted us to visit or not.
  18. 18. And we gave them all a CD with lots of information about plain language.
  19. 19. This included a draft bill. We had several versions, tailored to the interests of the office we were visiting.
  20. 20. And of course we had the draft that did everything we wanted in a bill.
  21. 21. We visited and called and visited and called for 4 months:
  22. 22. We finally found someone interested in a bill-- Bruce Braley, Freshman Democrat from Iowa, and a trial attorney
  23. 23. And a few months later • We also found a Senate sponsor – Daniel Akaka, from Hawaii.
  24. 24. Writing the bill • Once we had sponsors, we could think about writing a draft that they might introduce • We started by defining our ideal bill
  25. 25. The best of all possible bills • Addresses regulations • Addresses documents written for the public • Includes key elements of plain language • Requires government-wide guidance • Requires agency training • Requires agency lead official • Has specific targets for agency efforts • Requires agency reporting on progress
  26. 26. Politics is the art of the possible. Otto Von Bismarck, remark, Aug. 11, 1867
  27. 27. What was in the 2007 bills • Regulations • Documents written for the public • Key elements of plain language • Government-wide guidance • Agency training • Agency lead official • Specific targets for agency effort • Agency reporting on progress – + – + + + – +
  28. 28. • You have to be flexible. You aren’t going to get everything you want • We really wanted to cover regulations, but we lost that in discussions with an important House committee that had to approve the bill
  29. 29. • And you have to be ready to provide possible solutions to problems • For example, the legislator drafters inserted in an early version a requirement that each agency write its own guidance—a terrible solution • So we were ready for the next version . . .
  30. 30. • We had a guidance document on http://www.plainlanguage.gov/ for years, buried on a page entitled “guidance” • So we changed its name to “Federal plain language guidelines” and put a link on the homepage • And the bill’s drafters accepted it as an official set of guidelines
  31. 31. Once the bills were introduced • We started making more calls and having more meetings, trying to get co-sponsors, targeting members who might be particularly helpful in getting the bills passed.
  32. 32. • We also asked for letters of support for the bill from important organizations, like – the National Small Business Association, – American Association of Retired Persons (a huge and powerful group), – Disabled American Veterans – Consumers Union
  33. 33. What happened to the 2007 bills • The House bill, introduced first, passed 376 to 1—a huge victory. • The Senate bill was introduced later. Senator Bennett of Utah put a hold on the bill, which halted all movement. • We ran out of time to solve this problem. • So we were back to square 1.
  34. 34. In 2009 • Both sponsors from 2007 introduced similar bills early in the session • The House bill passed, 386 to 1 • And then, . . . I’ll tell you about that later.
  35. 35. What do the bills do? Here’s what the current bills say (this is somewhat different from what they said when they were first introduced).
  36. 36. Purpose The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.
  37. 37. Definitions Writing that is clear, concise, well- organized, and follows other best practices of plain writing appropriate toward the subject or field and intended audience.
  38. 38. This is not the definition we wanted, and it’s not even well written. But this was a place we had to compromise to get the bill out.
  39. 39. Agency responsibilities Within one year of the Act, use plain language in any new or substantially revised document covered by the Act. Within 9 months of the Act: • Designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency’s implementation of this Act;
  40. 40. • Communicate the requirements of this Act to employees; • Train employees in plain writing; • Establish a process for overseeing ongoing compliance with the requirements of this Act; • Designate one or more agency points-of-contact to receive and respond to public input on – the agency’s implementation of the Act and – the agency’s reports required under the Act.
  41. 41. • Create and maintain a plain writing website, within the domain of the agency’s homepage, to: – Inform the public of the agency’s compliance with the requirements of this Act; and – Provide a mechanism for the agency to receive and respond to public input.
  42. 42. Reports • Agencies must post an annual report on their websites reporting how the agency is doing implementing the act. • There is no way to ensure compliance, beyond the ability of the public to comment on agency reports and to complain to Congress if they don’t think the agency is doing well.
  43. 43. Guidance • Within 6 months of the Act, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget must develop guidance on implementing the requirements of the Act. The Director may designate a lead agency, and may use interagency working groups to assist in developing and issuing the guidance. • Until then, agencies are to use the Federal Plain Language Guidelines to guide their work.
  44. 44. Where are we now? • In March, the House bill passed, 386 to 33. • Once again, Bennett of Utah put a hold on the Senate bill. • In mid-September, after much hard work, we got Bennett to lift the hold.
  45. 45. What’s next? • Still have to get the Senate bill to a floor vote • Then the House has to vote on it again, since getting Bennett to lift his hold required some changes, and for a bill to become law both chambers must pass the same version • So, will we get a law this year . . .
  46. 46. And if we don’t succeed this year • We’ll try again in the next Congress
  47. 47. And if we do succeed this year • We’ll be back next year, trying to get one that addresses regulations
  48. 48. 3. Promoting plain language in a public agency • Moving a large agency toward a plain style of communication is difficult. • You are trying to change the organization’s culture to one where the needs of the reader come first. • You can’t make this happen overnight – you need a campaign plan and a sustained effort.
  49. 49. Gather evidence Find trouble spots in your organization where there is pain caused by poor communication: • too many forms filled out incorrectly • too many calls or letters asking for clarification • too few people responding to requests on time or correctly • not enough funds collected • too many violations
  50. 50. • Find some plain language case study that is as similar as possible to your situation – start by looking at “Writing for Dollars . . .” http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble /dollars.htm Watch for a new and expanded version of “Writing for Dollars . . .” in the next year.
  51. 51. • Find some good before and after examples – try looking in http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/inde x.cfm • You can create your own before and after examples, using your own material • Ask people which version they would rather read – the before or the after
  52. 52. Find a champion • Find someone as high in the organization as possible who likes the idea of improving communication • Find out if anyone is a member of Clarity or Plain International – not likely, but possible • Find a manager who is having pain because of a communication problem • Show them your case studies and examples
  53. 53. Do a pilot project • Even if you can’t find a champion, find some manager who will let you redo a document that’s causing problems because it’s unclear • The more pain the document is causing the organization, the better for you
  54. 54. • Test the document with users – 4 or 5 people going over the document with you can highlight trouble spots • Ask them (one person at a time) to explain short sections of the document to you – if they can’t, there’s a problem
  55. 55. • Also evaluate the response to the document before and after you revise it • This can be simple – you can keep track of – error rates on forms – funds collected – response rate – calls asking questions – other relevant statistics
  56. 56. Start a plain language group • Find other employees who are concerned about clear communication • Meet regularly to hear presentations, develop tools, write examples • Develop a group website to post news, examples, successes
  57. 57. Start an awards program • Give awards for best original documents and best rewrites • Get a sponsor – as high in the organization as possible • But you if you can’t find a sponsor, have the plain language group do it
  58. 58. Start a training program • Offer short training programs free to your organization’s staff • Do document workshops, where people can bring in their problem documents and get advice on rewriting them • Do brown bag lunches where people help each other with short passages that are giving them trouble
  59. 59. Have reasonable expectations • Your agency won’t change overnight • Remember, you are changing the culture of your organization — from one that rarely considers the needs of the reader, to one that always puts the reader’s needs first • Look for a series of small successes — aim for continuous improvement — not rapid change.
  60. 60. Remember • There are other people out there in other organizations fighting the same battles • The battle is worth it – it will pay off in better customer service and an improved bottom line
  61. 61. Dr. Annetta L. Cheek Chair, Center for Plain Language annettalcheek@gmail.com

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