Initial Report on Plain Writing Act Implementation
The Department began implementing the requirements of the Act calling on the Department’s roughly 40 individual offices, boards, divisions and component agencies to undertake the following: survey their own documents to determine which ones fall under the Act’s requirements; analyze whether the relevant documents are already written in plain language; take steps to comply with the Act where necessary; determine which employees need plain language training and develop a training plan.
This decentralized process has been implemented because the leaders of the individual components are in the best position to determine which of their documents are relevant, and which of their employees need to undergo training.
On January 31, 2011, the senior official for implementing the Act sent the following message to the senior executive and administrative officers of all of these individual components:
As you may know, last year the Congress passed, and the President signed, the Plain Writing Act of 2010. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-111publ274/pdf/PLAW-111publ274.pdf. The Act is designed to promote clear Government communication that the public can both understand and use.
As described in preliminary guidance from OMB: "Plain writing is concise, simple, meaningful and well-organized. It avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity and obscurity. It does not contain unnecessary complexity." http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/
Not only will the public benefit from plain language, but so will the Department: "Avoiding ambiguity and unnecessary complexity can increase compliance simply because people understand better what they are supposed to do."
Furthermore, studies have shown that agencies can reduce costs by creating documents in plain language, because plain writing can: reduce questions from the public; improve compliance with regulations; reduce resources spent on enforcement; reduce errors on forms and applications; and reduce time spent addressing errors.
The Act essentially covers any form of communication with the public except regulations. However, there are two Executive Orders that require regs also to be written in plain language as well.
By no later than March 31, 2011, we need your component to provide a list of documents covered by the Act that are routinely generated by your component. Covered documents include:
Please NOTE that OMB has indicated it is reading the term "documents" broadly, to include forms, letters, posters and websites.
1. Documents necessary for obtaining any federal government benefit or service, or filing taxes.
2. Documents that provide information about any federal government benefit or service.
3. Documents that explain to the public how to comply with a requirement that the federal government administers or enforces.
If your component issues or communicates with the public using any of the above documents, they must be rendered in plain language no later than October 13, 2011.
Also by the October deadline, the Justice Department website will create and maintain a plain writing section of www.justice.gov/open, which will inform the public of our compliance with the requirements of the Act, and also offer a mechanism for the public to comment on those efforts.
There are numerous resources to assist in drafting documents using plain writing. OMB has designated the Plain Language Action and Information Network, or PLAIN, as the official interagency working group to assist in this. PLAIN's website is accessible and helpful, offering links to many useful tools and resources, even some amusing (or painful) examples of non-plain writing. www.plainlanguage.gov.
In particular, you may want to consult its "Federal Plain Language Guidelines" for use in drafting documents: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/TOC.cfm.
Even the best writers among us can profit from some of PLAIN's Before and After versions of government writing. There are special sections on legal writing, too. PLAIN offers training sessions, as well as training for trainers, on plain writing. We strongly encourage you to spend some time studying the resources offered on this site.
On April 14, 2011, a second message to the executive and administrative officers followed up with information on training, that said in part:
OMB has now issued its final guidance for implementing the Act. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2011/m11-15.pdf. We'll be highlighting this shortly on HowTo.gov …
We would also like to encourage you to start thinking about Plain Language Training; basically, anyone in your component who writes anything intended for public consumption (forms, letters, posters, or postings on your websites) should be considered for such training. Pasted below is information on free Plain Language Training offered by the Plain Language Action and Information Network aka PLAIN (www.plainlanguage.gov), which has been designated by OMB as the official interagency working group to assist us in complying with the Act. …
A good primer on Plain Language that includes some online training can be found on the Canadian website Plain Train. http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/plaintrain/ …
The Federal Plain Language Guidelines, which DOJ will be adopting as its guide, can be found here: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/fullbigdoc.pdf
Finally, a third reminder was sent to the leadership of a few tardy components on June 14, 2011, and read in part:
…The details and various links regarding the law’s requirements can be found in two earlier messages, pasted below. Basically, if you publish anything that is meant to communicate directly with members of the public, you must comply with the requirements of the Act.
… has been in touch with your training officers and can be helpful with that aspect of our implementation. What we would like from you, as soon as possible, are answers to the following: do you publish any covered documents (as defined/described below)? If so, are they in compliance with the dictates of the Act now? If not, are you taking steps to bring them into compliance? While no resources have been provided, there are FREE training sites and seminars available.
Responses from the components reflect the wide variety of the Department’s missions and functions. Several reported that they do not produce any documents that fall under the Act. Others listed numerous documents that are relevant and are already in compliance with the Act’s requirements.
Some responses were interim in nature and will be supplemented as the inventory process continues.
The Department decided that because the components vary so widely in the type of documents they produce and because their missions are so diverse, the best way to ensure ongoing compliance with the requirements of the Plain Writing Act is to leave the responsibility with each component’s senior leadership.
A Status Update on Implementation of the Plain Writing Act was prepared for the senior executive and administrative officers in July, 2011, reminding them of their ongoing responsibility for both compliance and training:
On his first full day in office, January 21, 2009, President Obama issued his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, emphasizing the importance of establishing “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”
Plain writing is clearly necessary to achieve those goals. Thus the President signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-274, signed Oct. 13, 2011). The Act calls for writing in federal documents that is clear, concise and well-organized.
Plain language has been defined as communication that the audience or readers can understand the first time they hear or read it. Plain language should avoid jargon, redundancy, ambiguity and obscurity. It is logically organized, uses the active voice and speaks in common, everyday words arranged in short sentences.
As OMB pointed out in its final guidance on implementing the Act, the use of plain language can be valuable to senior managers as well as to an agency’s readers. Plain writing can improve the public’s understanding of agency communications; save money and increase efficiency; reduce the need for the public to seek clarification from agency staff; and reduce resources spent on enforcement.
On January 31, 2011, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Allen first informed DOJ component executive and administrative officers of their responsibilities in implementing the Act’s requirements. He requested from each a list of documents produced by their components that are covered by the Act, noting that OMB was construing the term documents quite broadly, to include forms, letters, posters and websites.
The Department informed the components’ leadership that any such documents created or substantially altered after October 13, 2011, must by law be rendered in plain language. It was left to the individual components’ leadership, who possess the most intimate knowledge of their own documents, to identify relevant documents and determine whether they were in compliance with the Act or not.
The January memorandum first mentioned available training resources for components to consider in bringing their employees up to the plain language standards. A follow-up memorandum dated April 14, 2011, gave more detail about such training courses and made clear it would be up to each component’s leadership to assess its own employees.
Each component should individually determine which employees would benefit from plain language training, and training plans should be developed as necessary.
Even prior to the OMB deadline of July 13, 2011, the Department had created a new webpage for plain writing, accessible from the DOJ Open Government page:
Information from some components reporting their progress in complying with the Act has already been posted to the plain writing page. This is an ongoing process, both in terms of document creation and employee training, and updates will be posted routinely as it is received from the components.
Components will be reminded again, as the October, 2011, deadline approaches, that all new or substantially altered documents must be written in clear English from that point forward. In addition, annual reports will be published on the plain writing webpage that will assess the Department’s progress in this regard. We will periodically remind components’ leadership of their ongoing obligations to make Department documents as plain-spoken as possible, so that – ideally – they can be clearly understood the very first time they are read.
Updated: August 2014