Monday, December 11, 2006

Hey! Cut Out the Legal Gobbledygook and Speak Plain English, Dammit!

Washington State Doing Exactly That With "Plain Talk" Initiative to Get Bureaucrats to Write Documents in Everyday Language Everyone Can Understand

PLUS: "The 'Skeeter Bites Report" Marks Its First Anniversary

By Rachel LaCorte
The Associated Press

The average person might find it tough to understand state government, but Washington state officials want to deploy changes to alleviate state personnel's employment of acronyms, jargon and legalese that routinely pervade their contacts with constituents.

Or in plain speak: Talk to the public as you would talk to any other person -- simply, and in plain language.

In the 18 months since Governor Christine Gregoire ordered all state agencies to adopt "plain talk" principles, more than 2,000 state employees have attended classes on writing letters, announcements and documents in everyday language.

So words such as "abeyance," "cease" and "utilize" are out, replaced by "suspension," "stop" and "use."

"If people are able to apply for an environmental permit and get it right the first time because they were able to understand it, that's success," said Larisa Benson, director of the state's Government Management Accountability and Performance system.

Making Government Language Easier to Understand Makes State More "User-Friendly"

When citizens know what the government is asking of them, there's a better chance they'll comply, officials have found.

For example, by rewriting one letter, the Department of Revenue tripled the number of businesses paying the "use tax," the widely-ignored equivalent of sales tax on products purchased out of state.

That meant an extra $800,000 collected over two years by the department, which had started its own plain-talk initiative before the governor's order.

"Simple changes can have profound results," said Janet Shimabukuro, manager of the department's taxpayer services program. "Plain talk isn't only rewriting, it's rethinking your approach and really personalizing your message to the audience and to the reader."

Gregoire says it's "a long-overdue initiative, but it's bearing fruit."

"When we just talk in a way that takes our language -- government language -- and throws it out, and talk instead in language everyone understands, we get a whole lot more done," she said.

Washington Is First State to Devote Full-Time to Plain-Language Communications

Though other states have done some similar work, Washington state is thought to be the first to have a full-scale effort, said Thom Haller, executive director of the Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit center urges government and business officials to use clear, understandable language in laws and other public communications.

In 1997, then-newly-elected Governor Gary Locke issued an executive order requiring the Washington Administrative Code to be written and organized in a more simple way. In the mid-90s, some state agencies started using plain language rules for training, on Web sites and in letters to the public.

The municipal government of that other, more well-known Washington -- the nation's capital -- started a plain-language initiative in 2004, and many federal agencies have had plain-language programs in place for more than a decade, Haller said.

"We're seeing them embrace it because they're recognizing that clarity in structure and language is important," he said. "It enables people to get their jobs done more efficiently."

The state's own official Web site notes that, "The public's experience of us is highly dependent on how we communicate with them. Citizens have a right to access government services easily and quickly, and clearly-written materials make it easier for them to do that.

"If the letters, applications, brochures and other documents we use are confusing and bureaucratic, it makes it difficult for [the public] to do business with us," the site points out.

Say What? Old "Bureaucratese" Is a Foreign Language For Many

The differences between the old and new language are as stark as night and day.

For example, here's an excerpt from a notice by the Department of Labor and Industry issued to the public asking if they received checks mailed by the agency:

Old language:
We have been notified that you did not receive the State of Washington warrant listed on the attached Affidavit of Lost or Destroyed Warrant Request for Replacement, form F242. . .

New language: Have you cashed in your L&I; check yet? The state's Treasurer's Office has informed us that a check we sent you has not been cashed.

And here's an excerpt from the Department of Licensing's instructions on how to report the sale of a vehicle to another party:

Old language: Per Washington state law 46.12.101, this report of sale will be deem properly filed if it includes that date of the sale or transfer; the name and address of the seller and of the buyer; the buyer's driver's license if available; and a description of the vehicle, including the vehicle identification number. . .

New language:
The Report of Sale must include:

# Date of the sale or transfer
# Name and address of the seller and buyer
# Buyer's driver's license number (if available)
# Description of the vehicle, including the vehicle identification number (VIN)

Old Habits Die Hard . . .

How did state workers start using bureaucratic gobbledygook in the first place?

"It's almost as if [to use a Native American metaphor] we have hundreds of different tribes out there with hundreds of different languages," said Dana Howard Botka, Governor Gregoire's plain-language program coordinator.

"Knowing the language of that tribe is essential to belonging to it,' Botka continued. "There's pride in knowing the language of your profession."

Writing consultant Sharon Bridwell, who teaches up to three classes a month for state employees, said her students just need help breaking old habits.

"It's like bursting them free to do what they really can do," she said.

Indeed, the state's Web site acknowledges that writing documents in plain English is harder than many people think. "They can break tradition, sometimes require legal consultations, and they may affect deeply-entrenched program procedures," the site admits. "Foggy communications are often the result of foggy policies."

. . .But Somebody's Got to Break Them

Managers can set the tone through encouraging messages and regular updates in agency newsletters, the site notes, "But the direction must come from the top or it won't get done."

At a recent class in the state capital, Olympia, Bridwell used slides and easels to write out pointers such as keeping sentences short.

Rich Coleman, a project manager with the state's Employment Security Department, said he'd try to be more concise in his letters to the public. "I'm more wordy than I'd like to be," he readily admits.

Coleman corresponds with prisoners and their families to help them rejoin the work force. "It's [the plain-talk initiative] an opportunity to see that the less I write, the more effective I am in getting the information across," he said.

Botka said the heart of the plain-talk initiative is to change the mindset of state employees to get them to think about the person who is reading the document or the Web page before they write -- much as most print journalists, their editors and many bloggers do.

"We're talking about people's rights and benefits," Botka noted. "If [the public] can't understand them, then they really don't have access to their government."

# # #

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: "The 'Skeeter Bites Report" Turns One Year Old This Week

By Skeeter Sanders

This blogger can't believe it. Has it really been a year? It seems like only yesterday when I launched this blog on December 11, 2005 -- with both of my rhetorical guns blazing.

The target of my wrath? The Federal Communications Commission -- more specifically, its ultraconservative chairman, Kevin Martin -- over the commission's crackdown on so-called "indecency" on over-the-air TV and radio.

Prompted in part by Janet Jackson's notorious "wardrobe malfunction" during CBS's live telecast of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004 and by "shock jock" Howard Stern's move from broadcast radio to satellite radio -- over which the FCC has no regulatory authority on program content -- Martin vowed an all-out crusade to "clean up radio and TV.

But Martin wasn't satisfied with cleaning up just the broadcast airwaves. He was actively lobbying Congress to pass legislation to extend the FCC's regulatory authority to cable and satellite radio and TV -- with the clear aim of forcing adult channels such as Playboy and Spice and pay-per-view TV, as well as Stern's now-uncensored satellite radio show.

I wrote then that although I'm no fan of Stern, the FCC has no constitutional right under the First Amendment to force adult consumers of pay-cable and satellite TV and radio -- especially those without children -- to be reduced to watching only "family-friendly" (read: "child-safe") programming on services that they're directly paying for.

A year later, my attitude hasn't changed. The FCC's crackdown is excessively broad and unconstitutionally vague, in violation of the First Amendment. Those are precisely the grounds upon which CBS and Fox are suing the FCC to have its indecency fines levied against them struck down.

For This Former Print Journalist, A Never-Ending Learning Experience

I have no idea how many people read that first article; I still don't and never will. I didn't have a visitor counter installed on this site until September. But if the past year has taught me anything, it's that the Internet blogosphere has given myself and many others the power to communicate and influence potentially millions of readers that they would otherwise never have an opportunity to reach.

The other advantage of writing an Internet blog -- particularly one that is independent, as this one is -- is that you are your own editor. And while this blogger has complete control over what I write, that freedom to speak my mind comes with an awesome responsibility to "get it right the first time" with facts and figures.

At the same time, not being limited by either editors or by space, I can -- and often have -- put out a fresh perspective on issues that makes people go "Hmmmmm, I never thought of that."

It certainly helps to have a background in print journalism: I was a freelance reporter for several publications over a 20-year career before I decided in 1991 to get out of newspapers (and the big-city rat race) and move into the less-stressful world of small-town radio as a disc jockey, playing smooth jazz at a noncommercial, community-oriented station in central Vermont, where I live.

But I was always more proficient at articulately expressing my opinions through the written word than through the spoken word. And as regular readers of this blog now know, I love to "stir up the pot."

It's been a long, strange trip with this blog over the past year. And it's far from over.

# # #

Volume II, Number 1
Special Report Copyright 2006, The Associated Press.
"The 'Skeeter Bites Report" Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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