Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Blow Struck for Plain Writing

I was scouring websites for editorial ideas the other night, for my stringer work opining for the small newspaper in Kansas where I worked last year. Writing three editorials weekly keeps my skills sharp and provides eating-out money. I’m pretty fast at writing editorials after 29 years of doing so.

The key is finding a topic on which I can provide an opinion. With subject in hand, I can pound out 350-400 words in a half-hour at the most, thanks to the boundless resources of the Internet. There is really nothing on which I can’t find background material, stories, quotations and whatever else I need to put together an editorial.

I’m thinking this whole Internet deal is here to stay…

I ended up on the website for the federal Office of Management and Budget, reading a report on how environmental regulations are a net benefit to the economy because they save lives and cut down on pollution-related illnesses. Another topic caught my attention as I waited for my printer to spit out the executive summary. (Try as I might, I am still a dead-tree person when it comes to reading anything of substance.) I hit the print key again and soon had in hand the “Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010,” from the OMB.

With all that was going on last year — midterm elections, UT’s lousy football team, Texas Rangers in the World Series, the Deepwater Horizon disaster — somehow we all missed passage of this crucial piece of legislation. No matter, since it took six months after passage to get the document now before me, which is the federal government’s game plan for encouraging government officials to write in plain English. Unsurprisingly, it takes six pages of 12-point text set at 1.5 line spacing to outline the plan. However, I must add that the document is written, well, in plain language.

The deadline for each federal agency to pick a Senior Official for Plain Writing and create a section on the website devoted to that topic just passed. Each agency was required to publish a plan for swearing off bureaucratese and writing plainly. I am happy to report that your government dollars have indeed been hard at work. I spot-checked the websites for the justice, agriculture, commerce departments, plus threw in the EPA for good measure. All have dutifully created such sections on their websites, swearing fealty to plain writing.

This is welcomed news. Anyone who has attempted to read the federal tax code, for example (My advice: Don’t), knows that the feds need a healthy dose of plain writing habits. Unfortunately, Internal Revenue Service apparently didn’t get the memo, since I couldn’t find any mention on its website of a new commitment to plain writing. Since I would prefer not to be audited again, I will withhold judgment on exactly what that means.

On the same site on which I found the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was a 171-page document, which I did not print, entitled the “2011 Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations and Unfunded Mandates on State, Local and Tribal Entities.” This report obviously was written before implementation of the Plain Writing Act, so I have taken the liberty of reinterpreting a few passages.

The report states: “As discussed elsewhere in this Report (see Appendix A) as well as previous Reports, the aggregate estimates of benefits and costs derived from estimates by different agencies and over different time periods are subject to significant methodological inconsistencies and differing assumptions.”

In other words: Actual results may vary.

Also: “A possible approach to the potential difficulty of advance assessment of costs and benefits involves rigorous experimentation with respect to the likely effects of regulation; such experimentation, including randomized controlled trials, can complement and inform prospective analysis, and perhaps reduce the need for retrospective analysis.”

Translation: It is possible to predict benefits before a regulation goes into effect.

Finally: “In order to promote data-driven regulation, OMB continues to be interested in public suggestions on how to use retrospective analysis to improve regulations, perhaps by expanding them, perhaps by streamlining them, perhaps by reducing or repealing them, perhaps by redirecting them.”

Translation: We need to hear what the public thinks about our rules.

Once the Plain Writing Act transforms gobbledygook into plain English, let’s start working on all those acronyms. If I were in charge, I would allow CIA, FBI and IRS, but that is about it. The less alphabet soup the better.


  1. Love it Gary. You may find a stinger job with the federal government before long.

  2. I was just about to say the same. If the whole UT thing hadn't panned out, I think we found your niche!

  3. Glad the UT thing panned out. Don't think I would make much of a bureaucrat.