OMB Reins in Arcane ‘Fed Speak’ with Plain Language Memo

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Photo: Drakis

The federal government has long been accused of speaking its own language marked by its overly arcane, even inscrutable syntax.

But a new group working within the Office of Management and Budget is tasked with curbing the overly complex verbiage and getting the feds to speak in “plain language.”

In a memo, OMB released “preliminary guidelines,” Government Executive reports, for agencies to adopt plain language standards as mandated by the 2010 Plain Writing Act. Along with the guidelines and resources for agencies, the memo also spells out a clear definition for plain language.

“Plain writing is concise, simple, meaningful and well organized,” Cass Sunstein, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in the memo. “It avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity and obscurity. It does not contain unnecessary complexity.”

According to PlainLanguage.Gov, a government resource for agencies looking to create more clarity, plain language consists of “communication your reader can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

This is achieved by short sentences, active voice and the use of common, everyday words, the site says.

Sunstein, writing in the OMB memo, said plain writing “should be seen as an essential part of open government.” But, aside from that lofty goal, he also wrote that using plain language increases efficiency and reduce costs.

According to the plain language law signed by President Barack Obama in October, OMB must create more detailed guidelines by April 2011 and federal agencies must appoint overseers of the language initiatives by July 2011, according to a Gov Exec report.

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1 Comment

  1. While I’m delighted that the long effort to get this law passed has finally come to fruition, it does alarm me that it was ever needed. The government has gotten so big, so bloated, so gargantuan, that its pronouncements and directives are barely comprehensible. Its lack of clarity is, I think, a symptom of a much bigger problem: government is embarrassed by its own output. Bureaucrats have to put out so many demands, extract so much time and money from its citizens, that it just naturally has come up with “inventive,” surreptitious, euphemistic, deceptive ways to say things. And in so doing, they’ve forgotten how to talk plainly — even if they wanted to. The hope is that this law marks a turning point, and that not only will the People be better able to comprehend what government is doing but that government will be able to see itself better.

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