We at OGIS have a serious case of plain writing fever. As you read on the FOIA Ombudsman a few weeks ago, the Plain Writing Act, signed in October, goes into effect this fall. We see this as unqualified good news!
So what is plain writing? Simply put, it is clear, precise writing that makes it easy to understand the writer’s central message. Plain writing is organized, direct and avoids jargon. Plain writing is also customer-service driven — it does not assume that the reader knows how the federal government works. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal employees who have met since the 1990s to encourage clearer government communications, has published a set of plain language guidelines on its website. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directs agencies to these guidelines in its guidance.
What isn’t plain writing? Unfortunately, the government produces too many examples to list here, but a few of the most frequent offenses include:
- Writing in the passive voice;
- Using overly long sentences and paragraphs;
- Hiding verbs (“conduct an analysis” instead of “analyze”);
- Overloading on acronyms;
- Using ambiguous words like “shall” ; and
- Using jargon.
So what’s the problem? For starters, unclear writing makes it difficult for people to interact with the government. For example, this question once appeared on a visa application form:
Have you ever been refused admission to the U.S., or been the subject of a deportation hearing or sought to obtain or assist others to obtain a visa, entry into the U.S., or any other U.S. immigration benefit by fraud or willful misrepresentation or other unlawful means? Have you attended a U.S. public elementary school on student (F) status or a public secondary school after November 30, 1996 without reimbursing the school?
What can you expect from the plain writing initiative? Well, you shouldn’t expect an immediate overhaul of all existing agency websites and publications. The OMB guidelines state that only “new or substantially revised documents” must be plainly written. Agencies are expected to develop a plain writing section of their websites and to publicize the agency’s plan for plain writing.
While agencies are required to plainly write only new and revised publications, we at OGIS sincerely hope that FOIA shops seize this opportunity to revise FOIA acknowledgment and response letters to meet federal plain writing guidelines and improve customer service. Clear written communications eliminate the need for requesters to contact the agency for clarification or elaboration, which just may streamline the FOIA administrative process.
As part of our review of agency FOIA policies and procedures, OGIS will gladly review agency FOIA letter templates and suggest ways to transform them into plain writing. Conversely, we welcome requesters bringing to us confusing FOIA letters. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.