October 13 is International Plain Language Day, marking 11 years since President Obama signed the U.S. Plain Writing Act to help ensure the American people could understand the information they receive from federal agencies.
International Plain Language Day also comes right after Customer Service Week, which means that technically, both customer service and plain language are Libras. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because both customer service and plain language address issues of fairness. They both work to provide fair play for both parties: government agencies and the people who have to use those agencies’ services.
In fact, plain language helps GSA’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) efforts. Plain language helps break down barriers. It also helps everyone: those with physical disabilities and those with disabilities that are not immediately visible. Plain language starts with Section 508, and moves to inclusion and accessibility. DEIA is often experienced--and expressed-- in words, and words are what plain language is about. The right words, of course.
What does plain language mean for government agencies?
For a decade, the U.S. federal government has been required to use plain language in any document that:
- is necessary for obtaining any federal government benefit or service or filing taxes.
- provides information about a federal government benefit or service.
- explains to the public how to comply with a requirement that the federal government administers or enforces.
But what does this mean?
For a start, it means government agencies need to put their customers first by following these guidelines:
- Write for your readers
- Avoid government-centric acronyms and jargon
- Use active voice, not passive
- Produce shorter sentences and paragraphs
- Design to highlight meaning
- Use pronouns
In other words, we need to make our content easier for the people who have to use it. Our final audience--the people who have to read our material--don’t need to learn our language; we need to relearn how to use theirs. We need to reach the people who use--who have to use--our products and services.
Too many websites have just too much. Sometimes our pages look like neighborhood drugstore receipts - full of coupons, promotional announcements, local weather, along with the actual record of what we bought. We have to reach over the wall of incomprehensible jargon, mysterious acronyms, and the sheer quantity of words.
To quote President Reagan, “Tear down this wall.”
What does plain language mean for GSA?
We are a mission-support organization for the U.S. federal, state, local, and tribal governments in real estate, acquisition, and technology--and more. We support the rest of the federal government with shared services such as travel and buying services and office space.
Given our scope, we’re never writing only for ourselves. We’re writing for the thousands of customers we have across the country. Thus, we need to deliver value and savings to other federal agencies--and write for them, not for ourselves.
And plain language intersects with our other initiatives: customer service, customer experience, user experience, usability, accessibility, and … the list continues.
What does our plain language work look like?
- Over 500 people attended our Fourth Federal Plain Language Summit on September 21, 2021. We highlighted some recent federal agencies’ plain language successes; presenters emphasized accessibility and user experience.
- With 1300 members, our Plain Language Community of Practice (one of many hosted by DigitalGov) hosts lively discussions, holds monthly meetings on various topics, offers free training to federal agencies, and maintains the website.
- Plainlanguage.gov had over 1,350,000 pageviews last year; the most popular section by far was the Federal Plain Language Guidelines with 640,339 pageviews.
But plain language is not reserved to the United States; many countries around the world are celebrating International Plain Language Day.
So we join everyone who uses plain language (and everyone who needs it) resolving to always move toward clear communications. We pride ourselves on our customer service, but we can always do better.
Oh, and the 11th anniversary gift? It’s steel. That too is appropriate. We’ve had a decade of being tempered between the hammer and the anvil. Now, we’re steel--powerful, flexible, and rustproof.