Plain Writing Act Preliminary Guidance

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 into law. The purpose of the Act is to promote “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” The Act defines plain writing as clear, concise, and well-organized. Documents which must be written in plain writing include those that are necessary to obtain government benefits or services or filing taxes; provide information about any government benefit or service; or explain to the public how to comply with a requirement that the government administers or enforces. While final guidance on the Act will be issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in April 2011, OMB released preliminary guidance in a Memorandum to heads of executive departments and agencies on the Act on November 22, 2010.

According to the Memorandum, plain writing should be treated as an essential part of open government because the main tenants of open government (transparency, public participation, and collaboration) cannot be achieved without clear and simple communication. Using plain writing will eliminate significant barriers to public participation in programs for government benefits and services and increase compliance through creating a better understanding of the instructions and requirements for receiving benefits and services. In addition, plain writing has the potential to reduce costs by:

  • Reducing questions from the public to agency staff
  • Improving compliance with regulations
  • Reducing resources spent on enforcement
  • Reducing errors on forms and applications
  • Reducing time spent addressing errors

OMB is establishing the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) as the official interagency working group to assist in developing the guidance required by the Act. More about the group can be found on their website: www.plainlanguage.gov.  Agencies are asked to consult with PLAIN to determine if their agency is represented on the group or find someone who can assist in carrying out plain writing efforts within the agency.

The Act requires agencies to designate a senior official responsible for the agency’s implementation of the Act and related guidance by July 13, 2011. Senior officials within agencies should meet the following criteria:

  • Be sufficiently senior, with cross-cutting agency responsibilities
  • Oversee agency programs, personnel, technology, regulations, or policy
  • Be involved in agency communications

Agencies are also required to include a plain writing section on the agency’s website. The website will serve as a way to inform the public of the agency’s compliance with the Act’s requirements and provide a mechanism for the agency to receive and respond to public input. The plain writing section of the website must either be located on or accessible from the agency open government web page. A model website template can be found at www.webcontent.gov.

When implementing this Act, agencies that do not already have plain writing guidelines in place that meet the requirements of the Act and OMB guidance should follow the PLAIN “Federal Plain Language Guidelines” when drafting documents covered by the Act.

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