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Government gobbledygook: It's dying a slow, painful death

Center for Plain Language

The Center for Plain Language assessed 12 federal agencies' compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which took effect last year.

The federal government got a mixed report card Thursday for its compliance with the law that says it has to write clearly and simply.

The Agriculture Department has met 93 percent of the requirements of the Plain Writing Act, which went into effect in October, according to a study by the Center for Plain Language. It was the only government agency to get an "A" from the nonprofit Washington think tank.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, on the other hand, is still mired in battological periphrasis, earning the only F after having met only 10 percent of the requirements. 

The Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit Washington think tank, gave out two grades to each of 12 federal agencies. The first rated compliance with measurable goals in the Plain Writing Act; the second reflected the center's assessment of how well each agency has followed the "spirit" of the law.

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On each measure, the Agriculture Department led the way, earning one of only two B grades on the "spirit" measure, in addition to the only A for compliance.

"We are confident that there has been a USDA sea-change on plain writing" since the law took effect, the center said.

The Department of Health and Human Services got the other B for compliance from the center, which gave it high marks for trying diligently to simplify all those frustrating federal benefit forms. The report praised senior management at HHS for "modeling" plain language and for introducing agencywide training programs in clear writing.

"Some federal agencies have embraced the Plain Writing Act, and others haven't," Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who sponsored the anti-gobbledygook bill, told reporters Thursday.

Read the Center for Plain Language's full assessment of each department

But "we still have a long way to go to make government forms and documents simpler and easier for taxpayers to understand," said Braley, who has introduced similar legislation to simplify the language of government regulations.

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Take the VA. It ranked last, drawing an "F" in both categories, indicating that the Center for Plain Language detected no effort to clean up its writing, as characterized by this passage from the VA's Statement of Regulatory Priorities, published in January (.pdf):

Pursuant to section 6 of Executive Order 13563 "Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review" (Jan. 18, 2011), the following Regulatory Identifier Numbers (RINs) have been identified as associated with retrospective review and analysis in the Department's final retrospective review of regulations plan. Some of these entries on this list may be completed actions, which do not appear in The Regulatory Plan. However, more information can be found about these completed rulemakings in past publications of the Unified Agenda on Reginfo.gov in the Completed Actions section for that agency. These rulemakings can also be found on Regulations.gov.

(Those links aren't clickable in the electronic document, by the way, making it even more difficult to get at the information.)

"Unless federal agencies are held accountable, they won't implement the changes required by the Plain Writing Act," Braley said. "... Until these grades are all A-plus, we're going to keep holding bureaucrats' feet to the fire."

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