Senate passed bill to 'stop the government speak' in agency documents

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) co-sponsored legislation to expand plain language requirements for certain federal agency information.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) co-sponsored legislation to expand plain language requirements for certain federal agency information. Pool/Getty Images

The proposal would expand and update an existing law on plain language requirements for agencies.

The Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday to override an existing law and update requirements for government agencies to write communications in easy-to-understand language.

Specifically, the Clear and Concise Content Act, backed by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chair Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), zeroes in on the use of plain writing in government content about benefits and services or filing taxes, provided on paper or digitally. 

“This bill does exactly what its name implies – it makes government communications easier to understand,” said Peters in a statement.

“Stop the ‘government speak,’” said Lankford in a statement. “Federal agencies don’t need to use jargon, countless legal citations and confusing references to laws so only ‘insiders’ can understand.”

The bill defines plain writing as “writing that is clear, concise, well-organized” and follows best practices to make the content understandable to an audience, “including an audience who may be disabled, may not be proficient in English or may otherwise be disadvantaged or traditionally underserved.”

If passed, the bill would repeal current plain language law, the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a year from now. 

The change would expand what government content is covered under the 2010 law – namely “any document that is necessary for obtaining any federal benefit or service or filing taxes, that provides information about any federal benefit or service or that explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the federal government administers or enforces” – while adding new data reporting requirements.

The new bill would apply plain language to any operations, policies or guidance of an agency “that are of material importance to the agency and are posted publicly by the agency,” as well as information on how to interact with or provide feedback to an agency.

The Office of Management and Budget would be charged with rescinding current guidance and issuing new guidance that would also include metrics to judge compliance and require agencies to get public feedback on their compliance with the law and test their content regularly, and OMB would be required to report publicly to Congress annually on implementation.

So far, the bill has no House counterpart. 

In addition to Congress, the White House has previously taken an interest in adopting more concise language. 

Executive orders from 1993 and 2011 broached the idea of plain language, with the latter noting that government regulations — a type of government communication the current plain language law and new bill don’t address — should also be clear and understandable. 

More recently, an executive order issued by the Biden administration last year on customer service tasked agencies with looking for ways to improve their compliance with the Plain Writing Act.

Within the executive branch, an unfunded Plain Language and Information Network has been meeting since the 1990s, running training sessions for agencies and managing a community of practice.

“Plain language means readers understand your documents more quickly. Readers call less often for explanations. They make fewer errors filling out forms. They comply more accurately and quickly with requirements,” the group’s website says. “Plain language writing saves time. If we save time, we save money. Plain language is good customer service and makes life easier for the public.”