An effort to make the government write so people can understand what they're reading is off to a spotty start.
A year after an anti-gobbledygook law took effect, federal agencies are still churning out plenty of incomprehensible English, according to the Center for Plain Language, which released a "report card" Thursday grading agencies on their progress — or lack of it.
The Agriculture Department got top marks among the dozen agencies checked: an A for meeting the law's basic requirements and a B for taking supporting actions such as training staff to write clearly. Faring the worst, Veterans Affairs flunked on both counts.
The Plain Writing Act required agencies to start using clear language in October in documents that provide information to the public. But there's no penalty for noncompliance. By now, all agencies are supposed to have a senior officer responsible for plain language, a section of their websites devoted to the subject and a broader process in motion to ensure they begin communicating more clearly with citizens and businesses.
The mixed results of the center's analysis "show that we still have a long way to go to make government forms and documents simpler and easier for taxpayers to understand," said Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, sponsor of the legislation. The center's chairwoman, Annetta Cheek, agreed. "You do see more documents coming out that are in relatively good, plain language," she said. But "it's very spotty."
The Defense Department has been known for its addiction to baffling acronyms, not to mention a 26-page cookie recipe that covered "flow rates of thermoplastics by extrusion plastometer" and a command that ingredients "shall be examined organoleptically," meaning looked at, smelled, touched or tasted. The department earned a B for meeting the law's basic requirements, as did the Labor Department and National Archives. The Environmental Protection Agency, Justice Department, Transportation Department, Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration and Small Business Administration were graded C on carrying out the checklist of duties required under the law. Homeland Security scored D, just above VA's F.
The appraisal was harsher when agencies were judged on living up to the spirit of the law with ambitious training, tracking of progress and other activities considered "meat on the bones," as Cheek put it. Labor, Transportation, EPA and VA were assigned F; Defense, Homeland Security and Justice got D; the archives, SBA and SSA earned C; and the Agriculture Department and HHS each got B.