*or, without the gobbledygook: Plain Language lessons from our government
In our last entry, we noted that although the U.S. Government’s Plain Writing Act of 2010 has been in effect for over a year and a half, there hasn’t been much improvement in the way the feds communicate with the public. This time, we look at some of the reasons why the Act hasn’t helped cure the government’s addiction to gobbledygook. Understanding what’s wrong with their approach to the problem can help you avoid repeating the feds’ mistakes when you implement your organization’s plain language initiative.
Lesson 1: You get what you pay for
The Plain Writing Act is unfunded. Despite the fanfare that surrounded passage of the Act into law, there was never any budget allocated for implementation. This is a big problem, because unfunded federal mandates usually don’t work. Money talks, and in this case its absence speaks volumes. The lack of funding sends a discouraging message about the government’s sense of urgency about implementation of the Act. It leads us to question the feds’ true level of commitment to improving communication with the public.
There’s a lesson here for the business community. Business leaders are virtually unanimous in acknowledging the importance of written communications skills. They know that poor communication causes operational inefficiencies, lost customers, missed opportunities, legal difficulties and even catastrophic events. Yet, like the feds, they’re strangely reluctant to invest in improving the way their organizations communicate. The fact is that improving communication, like any other worthwhile quality improvement initiative, will involve some up-front costs. The benefits more than justify the investment—but without the “I”, you can’t expect to see much ROI.
Lesson 2: leadership and accountability are key
The Plain Writing Act required every federal agency to appoint an official to manage its plain writing program. By now these officials have been in place for a while, but many of them still aren’t sure what they’re supposed to accomplish, don’t know what resources are available to them, and have no clear idea of how to proceed. Some of them question whether the Act is relevant to their agencies’ work, and don’t feel they need to take any action at all. They’re also aware that there are no real consequences for non-compliance with the Act. It’s not surprising that the Plain Writing Act is low on their list of priorities.
So the next lesson we can learn from the feds is that an effort to institute plain language is unlikely to succeed unless leaders make it a priority, establish measurable objectives, and then manage to these objectives. Private organizations can help ensure the success of their plain language initiatives by making it clear to employees that the mandate is coming from the top and that compliance isn’t a matter of choice. When you develop strategies for implementation and establish specific criteria for success (i.e., “Our goal is to achieve 20% fewer support calls by the end of the next quarter”) it becomes much more likely that employees will buy into the program and work towards the results you want.
Lesson 3: a half-hearted attempt at plain language won’t work
Another major problem for the feds is that their approach to plain language completely ignores a critical aspect of their communication with the public. Incredibly, they’ve made regulations exempt from the requirements of the Plain Writing Act. We think this situation is absurd. In a very real sense, the business of government is regulation. Most federal agencies exist specifically to administer programs mandated by various regulations. Anyone who’s tried to read regulations knows that they’re written in the worst sort of gobbledygook—dense legalese language that seems designed to frustrate and confuse. By exempting regulations from meeting the requirements of the Plain Writing Act, the feds have rendered the Act practically meaningless. Until regulations are written in plain language, it’s hard to see how we can expect any significant improvement in the way the government communicates with the public.
The lesson here is that your plain language initiative should apply to every aspect of your organization’s communications with its employees, customers, suppliers and regulators. For an efficiently run organization, clear, effective communication isn’t optional—it’s essential. Unless your goal is to obfuscate, confuse and mislead, and drive your own operational costs up, there’s no possible justification for using gobbledygook.
What are some of the “lessons learned” from your experience with plain language or other better communications initiatives? You’re invited to share them with us. We’re also still looking for your favorite examples of gobbledygook. Send us yours and you may see one of them featured here as we continue our blogging about plain language.