This post was written by Coby Logen (a pseudonym), who blogs on government website matters at and has worked to improve government websites for the past five years. He has a Master’s degree in usability.
We all know that government documents can be hard to understand. Tax forms and legalese befuddle the best of us. Finally, Congress is poised to pass good legislation to outlaw government gobbledygook.
The Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007 (/) will require government agencies to write many future documents in : language that is clear, concise, and easy to understand. Specifically, it mandates plain language for new government documents related to:
- Government requirements
- Government programs
- Obtaining government benefits
- Obtaining government services
The plain language movement has actually been , but with limited success. Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all issued statements or orders that required federal employees to write regulation in clear, plain language. was crystal clear, but .
This new bill essentially reiterates Clinton’s 1998 memorandum. The big difference is that it goes furtherâ€”it requires reporting. Agencies will have to report their progress in meeting the law, which will help ensure compliance.
Unfortunately, the bill’s language makes agencies’ obligations somewhat ambiguous. The bill clearly states what content is covered, but it is unclear about what sort of documents are covered. The bill states that it applies to government “documents”, but there are many senses of the word “document”. Would the law apply only to physical, print documents or would it apply to any document: print and electronic?
Congress should clarify that the bill applies equally to electronic documents, for example: websites, emails, and Internet applications. The spirit of the bill seems to cover both print and electronic documents, so the language should cover electronic documents too.
Although it needs this minor clarification, the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007 would be a great step forward for government transparency and participatory democracy.
Thanks for the report, Coby!