Federal agencies need to clean up their websites so they’re interpretable by people with a minimum of a high school education, a report finds.
President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2010 directing agencies to prioritize “clear government communication that the public can understand and use,” especially for documents describing government benefits and services, forms and instructions. But some agencies still struggle to meet those goals, according to a ranking assembled by VisibleThread, a tech company that uses natural language processing to assess the clarity and readability of content.
Some, such as the National Archives and Records Administration, have streamlined their websites by reducing the number of long sentences. Other, including the U.S. Mint, plummeted in the rankings between 2016 and 2017.
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Federal agencies often use passive language instead of active language, long sentences and complex words. These decisions make their content harder to interpret but are easily fixed, Fergal McGovern, VisibleThread’s CEO, told Nextgov. For instance, it’s not uncommon for agency sites to say “please make an application,” instead of the much simpler direction, “please apply.”
Overall, NARA, the Centers for Disease Control, the Community Oriented Policing Services, the Smithsonian Institution and the Federal Aviation Administration ranked the highest in VisibleThread’s clear writing index. The FBI, the Federal Highway Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ranked at the bottom of the list.
As an agency dedicated to mental health services, SAMHSA was an especially poor performer, the report noted.
“The United States is experiencing unprecedented opioid abuse," according to the report. "The epidemic is taxing federal resources and destroying families. ... Getting the right information to the right people in a clear and correct manner will save both money and lives."
McGovern said he’s seen signals from President Donald Trump’s administration website clarity is a priority, “if we think about the Republican mantra and the party’s intent: transparency, leanness of government, efficiency in government.”
VisibleThread has talked to some agencies about simplifying the language related to procurement, so contract requirements are clearer to contractors.
It’s still occasionally challenging to get agencies to realize why simplifying their content is critical, McGovern said.
Especially when compared to businesses, “government is the only entity on the planet that doesn’t sell,” he said. Amazon’s user interface, for instance, is “directed by self-interest ... they want to make it clear as frictionless” so it’s easier to buy products from them.
“There’s a different reward system in government,” McGovern said. “It’s almost, ‘We need to do better, we need to engage better,’ but there’s a longer distance between cause and effect.”