PLAIN WRITING ACT COMPLIANCE REPORT FOR 2017/2018

In 2017 and 2018, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) various components have continued to implement the requirements of the Plain Writing Act by writing and revising documents intended for the public to be more clear, concise, meaningful and well-organized.

The department’s law enforcement bureaus and offices, boards and divisions vary considerably in their missions and structures; therefore, the department has continued to rely on each component’s leadership to determine which of their documents comply with the Act, or need to be revised, as well as which employees need Plain Language training. 

In a continued reflection of the diverse and decentralized process employed by the department in implementing the Act, here is a sample of Plain Writing activities from a number of components.

Criminal Division

The Criminal Division hosted a Plain Writing Training provided by the Human Resources Institute.  The division also updated its training website to include Plain Language Writing guidance and resources.

Environment and Natural Resources Division

The Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) spearheaded a project to streamline web content/governance processes associated with the management of the Division’s public-facing web presence. The first phase of this effort entailed removing hundreds of webpages that were redundant, outdated/obsolete, and/or trivial. The second phase will entail enhancing information architecture, and re-writing content to ensure alignment to mission space/Plain Writing Act best practices. To provide a foundation for the second phase, ENRD partnered with the Civil Rights Division, who provided Plain Writing Act Training to the Division. This custom training helped educate ENRD workforce who write content for general public consumption.
 
ENRD maintains a Plain Writing Act-compliant template for composing Federal Register Notices. Federal Register Notices drafted by ENRD, which are most often intended to publish notices/lodging of proposed consent decrees for public consumption, are reviewed for Plain Writing Act compliance before they are finalized.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has continued to employ 508 compliance testing, peer review, editing, and web analytics to ensure the use of Plain Writing in its written communications to the public. These communications include the FBI’s external website and subdomains, social media platforms, and various printed products.

An internal user guide describes Plain Writing standards and requirements in detail for FBI communications personnel, including the need to avoid government jargon and to use concise and conversational writing on the web. Public affairs staff rely upon the guide to edit and vet website and other written verbiage for Plain Writing compliance.

FBI staff have also developed and delivered training presentations and briefings on best practices, frequent challenges or pitfalls, and other strategies for improving Plain Writing compliance, including through social media use, content development, and storytelling for public audiences.

Foreign Claims Settlement Commission

The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (Commission) created a new claim form and instructions in support of the adjudication of claims under the Guam World War II Loyalty Recognition Act.  These documents provided a special challenge to the Commission as a group of likely respondents spoke a rare language as their primary language.  Further, the Commission had to take account of various local customs and sensitivities in developing the forms.  The forms were reviewed by both Commission staff and individuals located in Guam to ensure that the forms were written in a clear and concise manner.  Further, the Commission has endeavored over the past two years to ensure that all decisions issued by the Commission are written in a plain manner to the extent possible.

Justice Management Division

The Justice Management Division finance staff conducted a plain language training, focusing on using active voice and tailoring a message to a particular audience.

Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management

The Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management (OARM) routinely makes information written in Plain Language available directly to the public and to DOJ components for their use.  OARM oversees the content of two main public webpages addressing DOJ legal hiring programs and OARM specifically.  The Legal Careers website is directed primarily to the general public and prospective job applicants.  The OARM website is primarily directed to current and incoming DOJ employees, with the exception of the section of OARM’s website dedicated to FBI Whistleblowers.  The FBI Whistleblowers section provides information to the public about the unique provisions of the law applicable to FBI whistleblower cases and OARM’s procedures for handling those cases, as well as answers to frequently asked questions.  In addition, OARM manages the content of an internal DOJ webpage providing policy and procedural guidance to DOJ employees on a wide range of legal employment policy matters.

OARM regularly reviews and updates its outward facing materials, including written recruitment materials, to ensure that they use clear, concise and well-organized language, and avoid unnecessarily complex or vague terms.  OARM also strives to write its policy guidance so that it is useful to both agency personnel and the public. To further the use of Plain Language in written communications to its constituents, OARM employs the following strategies:  508 compliance in coordination with the DOJ web staff, peer reviews of content, input from target audience, and web analytics. 

Office of the Inspector General

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) continues to uphold plain language principles in both its internal and publicly disseminated products.  For written material that is made public, such as reports, testimony, and related documents, OIG divisions are responsible for ensuring that final products materially comply with relevant OIG standards, including the OIG’s Style Manual that specifies the use of plain and concise language.  Nearly all of the OIG’s publicly-disseminated documents go through a rigorous editing process to ensure that plain, concise, and understandable language is used in the final product.  This process also applies to OIG web-based postings of ongoing work summaries, press statements, multimedia products including videos and podcasts, and Twitter and YouTube announcements.

Overall, report reviewers and writer-editors have been trained to use plain language to the fullest extent possible, a challenge given the often technical and legal nature of the OIG’s work.  Specific division efforts to reinforce plain writing include conducting roundtable sessions to resolve any potential misinterpretations during the report-writing process, and providing training for using software that generates a readability measurement roughly equivalent to U.S. grade levels.  Additionally, staff throughout the OIG that are involved in report reviews continued to participate in training that reinforced plain language use.  This training, which was provided by the OIG, various vendors, and the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, included sessions on Writing Effective Reports; Report Writing and Message Development; Developing and Presenting High-Impact Findings; Writing Fundamentals; Clear Writing Through Critical Thinking; Effective Reporting Strategies for Evaluators; Reviewing Other People's Report Writing; Using Plain Language; and Compliance with the Plain Writing Act.  In addition, several divisions refer to plain language principles in their performance or strategic plans and some divisions include related performance measures, such as training, in staff’s performance goals.  

In addition to guidance provided at the division level, the OIG makes plain writing-related resources available to all of its employees.  For example, the OIG publishes writing-related articles in its bi-weekly newsletter that is distributed to all OIG employees.  The OIG also uses its SharePoint platform to raise awareness of the Plain Writing Act, provide related tools and tips, and communicate additional writing guidance that includes plain language techniques.   

The OIG also applies report standardization guidelines to ensure consistency among its reporting divisions and improve the readability of its publicly-issued products.  These efforts include uniform report covers and a uniform report numbering system within the reporting divisions, the use of a reader-friendly standardized font, the use of report templates with standard report elements, and the use of formatting requirements that are applied consistently across the OIG.

The OIG’s other external written products also receive close attention and review.  For example, the OIG reviews position descriptions and vacancy announcement templates and revises language as necessary to provide job prospects with more reader-friendly material.  Divisions also continue to review templates for memoranda and letters used for various correspondence to ensure the use of plain language.  The OIG’s Office of General Counsel regularly assesses standard form documents, such as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Giglio response letters, to improve them from a plain language perspective.[1]

Finally, the OIG uses a variety of mediums to communicate clearly and effectively, including social media and informational and educational videos.  For example, the OIG produced and disseminated a five-part webinar on the grant audit process to enhance grant recipients’ understanding of the OIG’s process and expectations of auditees.  This webinar provides a valuable resource for grantees, DOJ staff, and OIG employees in that it explains our process in plain terms, and defines technical terms used in connection with OIG grant audits and during the audit resolution process.  The videos are available on the OIG’s website and on YouTube, and several DOJ offices have added it to their specific websites as a resource for their staff as well as for grantees.

Office of the Pardon Attorney

In 2017 and 2018, the Office of the Pardon Attorney took several steps to ensure public information conforms to the Plain Writing standards. A number of form letters that are delivered to members of the public were revised, the office’s website has been reformatted to provide additional information, and all staff were asked to complete the online training course. In the upcoming year, the office will continue to revise our public information to provide succinct but thorough answers to those we serve.

The Office on Violence Against Women

 The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) has engaged in efforts to comply with the Plain Writing Act. OVW revised the standard formula grant program and discretionary solicitation templates to reduce duplication, increase the use of consistent terminology and avoid jargon, and improve the layout and design. OVW staff use these templates when drafting the fiscal year solicitations and customize the final solicitations with relevant, specific information for each grant program. OVW also revised the Solicitation Companion Guide to avoid duplication, reorganize information and utilize links to the OVW website. Additionally, OVW presented a power point training on the principles of plain writing to OVW staff.

U.S. Trustees Program

The U.S. Trustees Program (USTP) edited internal reports and articles for publication to comply with Plain Writing principles.

 


[1] The Supreme Court case Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150 (1972), and Department of Justice policy require federal prosecutors in criminal cases to obtain and disclose to the defense information about the credibility of law enforcement witnesses.  Prosecutors’ requests to the OIG to obtain such information are known as Giglio requests.

Updated January 28, 2019

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