Friday, January 18, 2013

Plain language in regulations

We continue our series of guest posts with this piece from Dr Annetta Cheek. Annetta is an anthropologist by training, with a PhD from the University of Arizona. She worked for the US Government from 1980 until early 2007 and spent four years as the chief plain language expert on Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government. She was the chair of the federal interagency plain language advocacy group PLAIN, from when it was founded in 1995 until she retired from the government. She also administered the group’s website,

Since retiring, Annetta has served as Chair of the board of the private sector Center for Plain Language. The Center held its third annual awards at the National Press Club in May 2012. Annetta is also the Director of Plain Language Programs for NOVAD Consulting and R3I Consulting, two Washington DC-based consulting firms.

In 2010, the United States Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Plain Writing Act. That act requires agencies to write in plain language any material about public services and benefits. Plain language advocates, and especially the Center for Plain Language, had been advocating such an act for some years.

But noticeably missing from the act were government regulations. In fact, the act specifically excluded regulations from coverage. While regulations had been included in the first several versions of the bill, the provision was lost during the negotiations that are an integral part of the process of getting Congress to pass legislation. 

Reasons behind the loss of this provision included a concern that it would have been used as an excuse to stall regulations (“Take this back and rewrite it — it isn’t in plain language!”) and of course the old wives’ tale about plain language being imprecise. And during the campaign for the bill, a number of attorneys from federal agencies traipsed up to Capitol Hill to complain that writing in plain language was just too hard. I admit I was a bit surprised by that — while I know that writing in plain language is not nearly as easy as the outcome may make it look,  I’m not used to attorneys admitting that they can’t write something.

We believe that it’s critical for the government to write regulations in plain language. Regulations are the starting point for most, if not all, federal programs. All too often, confusing regulatory language flows down into the documents that go directly to the public. Statutory language is often obscure, and the public needs decent regulatory language to clear up the confusion. I worked on many programs during my 25 years as a federal employee in which members of the public read the regulations themselves. They didn’t want to have to pay some attorney or technical expert to explain the regulations to them. Nor should they have to. The government should write all its documents in a style that’s accessible to the intended reader.

We’ll be going back to Capitol Hill when the new Congress starts to meet. We’ll be talking to them again about plain language in regulations. And we’ll keep talking to them until we achieve our goal. It’s a battle worth fighting, and one that citizens in all countries should take on. 

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