THE BLOG

Common Ground for the President and New Congress: Make Government Speak Plain English to the People

01/25/2011 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As President Obama forges ahead with a more conservative Congress, Americans are wondering whether our nation's leaders will be able to work together on any important issues.

Here's one area on which the executive and legislative branches should be able to find common ground. Our government should speak a common language with the American people -- plain English.

Among all the explanations regarding why the 2006, 2008 and now the 2010 elections have all shaken up the political establishment, one reason rarely receives the attention it deserves. Americans are angry about how huge and powerful public and private institutions emit a protective smokescreen of gobbledygook rather than simply and straightforwardly explain their policies, benefits and services. After all, can anyone fill out a student loan form, make sense out of correspondence from Social Security, get a straightforward answer about the provisions of the healthcare bill, or comprehend communications from their credit card company? This was reinforced by research Siegel+Gale recently commissioned. Two-thirds of Americans (56 percent) say the U.S. government does not do a good job of communicating what benefits and services its agencies provide to citizens.

The elections of 2010 exhibited promises from Democrat and Republican leaders to put an end to this crisis of complexity. Shortly after taking office, President Obama issued a "Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies" calling for "transparency and Open Government." Before gaining control of the House of Representatives, the Republicans' campaign document declared, "We pledge to make government more transparent in its actions." Now Democrats and Republicans have the opportunity to put their promises to work and compel government to communicate in clear, accessible and functional ways that the American people can understand.

The president and Congress have a powerful tool for transparency in the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which became law less than a month before last year's elections. Sponsored by Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) and passing the House and Senate by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, the law calls for "improving the effectiveness and accountability of federal agencies to the public by promoting clear government communications that the public can understand and use." Together with the work on improving consumer contracts in the financial service industry championed by presidential appointee Elizabeth Warren, this law creates a rare opportunity to promote transparency in the public and private sectors.

Relentless in his pursuit of transparency, Congressman Braley--in the first week of the 2011 Congressional session--challenged his colleagues in the House of Representatives to add a provision requiring Committees to post a Plain Language summary of all bills on their public websites 72 hours before a bill is considered on the House Floor.

The administration and Congress should understand that transparency means more than making information available in a timely manner--the information has to be organized, written and designed to facilitate readability. Yes, the government is releasing a lot of "data" through web- sites like Recovery.gov, Data.gov and USAspending.gov. But they are merely shoveling massive amounts of information onto these sites. This may be useful for policy wonks and media specialists, but it is impenetrable to the average citizen. This data must be simplified through "streamlining"--a process that provides logical organization, clear writing and the elimination of bureaucratic language, abstruse acronyms and legalese. And charts and graphs should clarify, not confuse, the facts they seek to convey.

As they lead government toward more comprehensible communications, the administration and Congress should follow five signposts for simplicity:

1. No more red tape: You can't legislate simplicity through rules, mandated disclosure statements and readability formulas. Instead, encourage agencies to experiment with creative approaches to preparing communications that people can use and understand.

2. Less legalese: Reduce the influence of lawyers in drafting documents, brochures, websites and other communications. They have demonstrated a preoccupation with the letter of the law instead of the spirit of making communications simple, clear and usable.

3. More market research: Surveys reveal whether people can make sense of government documents. Show citizens the material on the Internet to make sure they understand and will act accurately on the information or request. When people are given clear documents, correspondence and interactive websites, they have a more favorable opinion of the agency and government.

4. Make data user-friendly: One screen on an Internet site can summarize a 50-page document full of charts and graphs, allowing the user to correlate and interconnect information.

5. Design matters: Use design to signal that communications are accessible and make them easier to read and use. Captions can break up long bodies of text. The right type styles can ensure readability. Bold face type emphasizes critical information.

With varying degrees of success, former Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton, as well as former Vice President Gore, all sought to simplify government communications. As President Obama said in a different context, he would not be "the first president to take up this cause." But, if he addresses the issue now, he can be the last president to have to initiate a simplification campaign from square one.