Federal agencies slip a bit in 'plain writing'

Social Security, Ag departments still get A's

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The federal government got lower grades this year in how clearly it communicates with the public, according to a new study released Thursday.

The sixth annual study, by the Center for Plain Language, a Virginia-based nonprofit, rates 21 federal agencies on plain writing.

The federal government got an overall grade of B in the “2017 Federal Plain Language Report Card.” That’s about half a grade lower than the previous year.

In numeric terms, the center said, the grade fell by 11 percentage points.

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, who helps publicize the report card, said on a conference call the new grades are disappointing.

“I will say as a former college teacher, I wouldn’t be happy with that,” he said. “I’m not sure the American public should be either.”

The center rated agencies on Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQ, pages, as well as data infographics. The ratings included:

l Social Security Administration: A plus for its FAQ and a B for its data infographic.

l Department of Agriculture: A for its FAQ and A for its infographic.

l Department of the Treasury: D plus for its FAQ and a C minus for its infographic.

Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were the only agencies that got grades as low as a D plus.

The center said it hadn’t given out anything lower than a C for the past two years.

The center did change the way it graded the agencies for this year’s report. In 2016, graders rated public forms and instruction, not FAQ pages. Data infographics weren’t rated at all last year.

Chip Crane, who is on the center’s executive board, acknowledged the change in methods but said he would have thought an FAQ would receive a higher grade than a set of instructions.

Asked on the conference call whether this was a reflection on the Trump administration, officials instead theorized the lower grades may be the result of changing from one administration to another.

“Maybe it hasn’t been as much on the front burner for some agencies because of all the other transition,” Crane said. “ All the Cabinet (departments) have a new secretary. Some have had a couple of different ones already.”

The study stemmed from a 2010 law, which was authored in the House by former U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. The law is aimed at pushing federal agencies to communicate more clearly with constituents.

The center says it became involved because the law did not have a mechanism to review or enforce compliance. The group does not get government funding, and the grading and preparation of the report is done by volunteers.

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