Jim Porter: Feds adopt ‘Plain Writing Act’ – an oxymoron
Special to the Sun
TRUCKEE/TAHOE, Calif. – President Obama recently signed into law a mandate for federal agencies to write in plain, ordinary, understandable English. Like this:
“In conjunction therewith, pursuant to regulations promulgated thereunder and commencing in accordance with a statute signed herein by President Obama, the government and its agents, employees and representatives, shall be precluded from writing the convoluted gibberish heretofore evidenced, as referenced in the context and particulars therein.”
Writing like that is what the federal government is no longer supposed to do – no more ambiguous, indecipherable governmentese. The kind of writing we have come to expect from our favorite federal agencies.
Here’s the preface to the Plain Writing Act of 2010: “To enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that government documents issued to the public must be written clearly, and for other purposes.” Sorry, but what does that last phrase mean “and for other purposes”? Not exactly clear to me.
Federal agencies are now required to set up programs, including monitoring and reporting, to communicate in clear and plain English when writing to the public. Good luck with that, IRS. For example, these words are to be deleted from federal communications with citizens: “pursuant,” “promulgated,” “thereunder,” “commencing,” “in accordance with,” “herein,” “precluded,” “hereintofor,” “evidenced,” “shall” and “practicable.” Those time-honored words are standard legalese to me.
Instead of the government saying “it is requested,” expect now to see “please,” and “it is required” will become “you must.” While the government is becoming “we” and “us” lowly citizens are becoming “you.”
Here is an example of a fishing directive that once read: “After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September.” Now changed to: “Vessel operators must attend skipper education workshops before commencing fishing.”
So what formerly would read: “Timely preparation, including structural and non-structural mitigation measures to avoid the impacts of severe winter weather, can avert heavy personal, business and government expenditures. Experts agree that the following measures can be effective in dealing with the challenges of severe winter weather,” becomes this advice: “severe winter weather can be extremely dangerous. Consider these safety tips to protect your property and your self.”
Those of you fed-up with governmental bureaucratese, don’t celebrate too soon as this is not the first effort to bring clarity to complex government documents. Decades ago a BLM employee wrote a book after World War II called “Gobbledygook.” In the 1970’s, President Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”
The Clinton administration issued monthly “No Gobbledygook Awards” to agencies that ridded themselves of bureaucratese. In fact there is a government website that still operates: http://www.plainlanguage.gov. I tried to go there but got confused by the instructions.
The administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs issued a memorandum providing further guidance: “Plain writing is concise, simple, meaningful, and well-organized. It avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity; it does not contain unnecessary complexity.” That is to say lawyers are out of business.
This new law caused me to dig up an old Law Review written on Sept. 22, 1988, about government doublespeak. Here are a few gems:
• “When the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to cows, chickens, and other farm animals, they are called “Grain-consuming Animal Units.”
• People don’t get fired anymore, it is simply a case of “Negative Employee Retention,” or they are placed on “Non-Duty, Non-Productive Status” (which is probably what I will get after this column).
• A surgeon accidentally perforated a patient’s colon and it was not called a death, but a “Diagnostic Misadventure of a High Magnitude.” In other words, the patient “Failed to Fulfill his Wellness Potential.”
• A bomb in federal vernacular is a “Vertically Deployed Anti-Personnel Device.”
• Here are my favorites. According to the FAA, the propeller didn’t break off; it was just a case of “Uncontained Blade Liberation.” And did you know the shovel that workers lean on is called a “Manually Operated, Minimally Functioning, Earth Displacer and Remover”?
• And last, when you go over your budget, just tell your boss that “These reports indicate that the program is “Excessively Consumptive of Funds.”
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 and my effort to cover this breaking story made me recall yet another 1983 column titled “Understanding How Lawyers Talk.” Next week.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm’s web site http://www.portersimon.com.