Government-speak — with its acronyms, abbreviations and general jargon — can make anyone’s head spin. Can the DoD IDA get trained on FOIA with CBT? Will the EPA FPL share an MOU with OGIS? OMG, it’s ridiculous enough to make you LOL (or SMH)!
Some of us in the Federal world get a little entrenched in our lexicon — though anyone who’s been to a hospital or bought a house knows every industry should come with its own glossary. Still, navigating government terminology can be tricky even for those of us on the inside and it’s certainly a challenge for the public.
While abbreviations and acronyms are unavoidable, we feds should make an effort to communicate more clearly with the public. In fact, we not only should write using plain language — it’s now the law! The Plain Writing Act of 2010, signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 17, 2010, requires that government documents be written in “plain writing,” meaning that they are “clear, concise and well-organized.” Clear communication that avoids jargon and unnecessary complexity increases efficiency and reduces the need for the public to ask agency professionals for clarification. The new law applies to most documents that are intended for communication with the public. The Office of Management and Budget issued guidance in April 2011 to assist agencies in complying with the Act.
Even without a law, it’s good practice to communicate in a simple, easy-to-understand way. We Freedom of Information Act professionals are in constant contact with the public and provide better service when we draft a helpful, explanatory letter rather than a brief response that, while factual, means little to a layman requester.
We should take the time to explain why a particular exemption must be claimed beyond citing the statute and repeating its language. If a search results in no records found due to their age and an agency’s retention schedule, we should explain to the requester that this “no records” response is likely because they were lawfully destroyed. When we tell requesters that some of the responsive pages were referred to another agency for review, let’s go ahead and let them know who to contact to follow up on that — even if it’s just the general FOIA Service Center.
We can all hope that members of the public will learn our acronyms and shorthand speak and just GUTI. But writing with plain language and communicating our message more clearly from the start provides far better service to the public, IMHO.