Why isn't the Plain Writing Act working?

After five years of the Plain Writing Act, little has changed

It's an election year here in the USA, and the only thing the presidential candidates agree on is that the federal government needs to become much more efficient. They're all promising to make it happen, but so far nobody's promised to improve the way the feds communicate with the public.

Maybe they think the problem was solved when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law in October of 2010. The Act required federal agencies "…to write all new publications, forms and publicly distributed documents in a clear, concise, well-organized manner." But although it's been the law of the land for over five years now, the Plain Writing Act hasn't really improved the agencies' ability to communicate with the public they serve. People are still confused by the letters, notices and forms they receive from the government, and they still get lost and frustrated when they seek information on agency web sites.

Three reasons why the Act isn't working

Why hasn't the Plain Writing Act worked well? Given the problems inherent in the Act, we might do better to ask why it's worked at all. Let's look at three of the biggest reasons for its poor performance.

  1. Regulations, arguably the most important communications Washington produces, aren't covered by the Act. This glaring omission means that legislators don't have to worry about being clear, or concise, or well-organized. And they don't. For the public, their steady output of legalese goobledygook is a constant source of misunderstandings, errors and frustration.

  2. The Act is a law—but it's a law with no teeth. There are no clearly defined penalties for non-compliance. Nothing bad happens to an agency for failing to make its communications clear, concise and well-organized.

  3. The Act is an "unfunded mandate", meaning that agencies don't receive any budget to make it work. They get a booklet of writing guidelines and a half-day training session. These resources are fine, as far as they go, but they don't come close to meeting the challenges of implementing a successful plain writing program within a large organization.

Free white paper

With these problems, it's not surprising that most agencies haven't made much progress towards plain writing. Get our free paper, 'Do You Need a Corporate Content Standard?' to find out what they need to do to be successful.

Free white paper: Do You Need a Corporate Content Standard?
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