Jewish World Review August 10, 2010/ 30 Menachem-Av, 5770
Needed: Plain English
By Tom Purcell
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | "Sir, I know how busy you are," I said to the government bureaucrat, "so I thank you -- and your interpreter -- for taking time to meet with me. My question to you: Why doesn't the government communicate in plain English?"
"Your query poses prospective considerations that rise beyond the level of considerations that the voter-taxpayer base may be prepared to ascertain," said the bureaucrat.
"Huh?" I said, looking to his interpreter.
"He said it's best that your question remain unanswered," said the interpreter.
"But it must be answered," I said. "Our politicians just voted on a 2,400-page health bill that was so confusing, few knew what was in it. Now it is being converted into rules, regulations and public documents that will be even more confusing."
"This is because government representatives and their legislative aides are often persuaded, at the behest of revenue-generating entities, to apply lawyerly terminology to obfuscate clarity in a manner that benefits their outcome," said the bureaucrat.
"He said bills are often written in confusing language so that the public will not notice the special favors politicians are slipping in for their buddies," said the interpreter.
"That, sir, is why plain language is so important," I said. "In a republic, the citizens must know what their government is up to. Government agencies must communicate clearly with the public. Rules, regulations, forms, applications, brochures, letters, requirements, etc. must be in plain English!
"Look, " I continued, "despite overwhelming odds, some wonderful government employees have been trying to make government intelligible for years. Annetta Cheek, who held various executive positions within the government, spent her career doing so. She co-founded a volunteer plain language initiative for the government. Now retired, she chairs the board of the Center for Plain Language (centerforplainlanguage.org).
"Cheek and other government volunteers worked tirelessly to improve government communication. The Clinton administration embraced their ideas and issued a memo encouraging the use of plain language -- though the effort faded after Clinton left office.
"Still, a handful of agencies, such as the Veterans Benefits Administration, have voluntarily stepped up to make their forms easier for the public to understand. The Securities and Exchange Commission published 'A Plain English Handbook.'
"But what is really needed is a law! That almost happened in 2008. U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, introduced a commonsense bill that required federal agencies to translate their documents into 'plain language.' It passed 376-1 in the House -- it was on its way to passing in the Senate, too, until Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, held it up. He offered some gobbledygook about the unintended consequences of making all agencies translate complex laws into clear language.
"That is nonsense, sir! Plain language in government communications is essential to the vitality of our republic. Imagine the time and money that would be saved if citizens could understand government forms. Imagine the outrage many would feel if they finally had a full understanding of the regulations that will result from the 2,400-page health bill! The public deserves to know, sir. The public demands that plain English become the law of the land. Now what do you say to that?"
The bureaucrat dismissed his interpreter from the room and locked the door. He returned to his seat and looked me directly in the eye.
"Are you nuts?" he said. "I got kids in college. If not for government gobbledygook, how else would I be paid $185,000 a year?"
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© 2010, Tom Purcell