Report: Agencies Still Don't Write In Understandable Language

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Employee turnover could be one of the reasons for an increase in jargon on agency websites.

An independent research group found federal agencies still don’t communicate with the public in language everyday people can understand—if anything, they’re using more jargon.

The Center for Plain Language on Friday issued its seventh annual report card on agencies on their use of concise, understandable writing. The center also graded agencies on their compliance with the 2010 Plain Writing Act, which requires organizations to train employees to write clearly and follow other best practices.

Of the 23 agencies included in the report, only four—the Agriculture and Education departments, Social Security Administration and Small Business Administration—received grades of “A-minus” or above for writing quality. No groups failed the evaluation outright, but three agencies—the Homeland Security, Treasury and Housing and Urban Development departments—earned grades of “D-plus” or lower.

The average writing grade dropped from a “B” to a “C” since last year.

“Having been in Congress for a number of years now, I believe more than even that clear communication from the government is critical,” said Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, on a call with reporters. “Clearly we need more agencies to strive for this level of performance year in and year out.”

To calculate grades, the center evaluated each agencies homepage and most-visited webpage on five criteria for quality writing. Compliance grades were based on how well groups met the staffing, training and reporting requirements outlined in the Plain Writing Act.

While most agencies hovered around the average in writing quality, their compliance grades had a much wider spread. More than half the groups scored “A-minus” or higher in compliance, three agencies earned “D” grades, and four—the Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Treasury departments—received failing grades.

The center attributed much of the drop off in grades to high employee turnover rates.

Under the Plain Writing Act, each agency must dedicate at least two employees to ensuring websites and publications meet plain language requirements. But of the 46 plain language personnel across the 23 agencies included in the report, the center found only 10 have served for more than three years.

And there’s a potential causal relationship between that turnover and declining grades, said David Lipscomb, who spearheaded the center’s report. Of the 13 agencies that replaced both their plain language specialists since 2015, nine saw both their writing quality and compliance grades drop. Only two of the 10 agencies with partial or no turnover saw their grades fall.