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Plain language report card issued

Social Security, Homeland Security get top grades

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U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack joined the Center for Plain Language on Tuesday in issuing its annual Federal Plain Language Report Card that shows federal agencies have made progress in how clearly they communicate with the nation’s taxpayers, but have room for improvement.

The Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security tied for top grades and the Departments of State and Transportation received the lowest grades, according to the Iowa City Democrat, who has taken up the challenge of former 1st District U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, the sponsor of the Plain Language Act of 2010.

“Our federal agencies have a responsibility to provide clear and precise communication,” Loebsack said, adding that “things are confusing enough for the average person so the last thing we need is confusing language.”

Referring to the grades State and Transportation received, Loebsack said that as a former Cornell College professor, “I would say a C- leaves lots of room for improvement.”

Compared with last year, an all-time high of 23 agencies — including all 15 Cabinet-level departments — participated in the plain language review, and writing and information design scores improved overall. There were no Ds or Fs and, overall, a record number of agencies scored B or higher.

“We think we’ve made an impact on the way federal agencies write,” said Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the center. “It’s important for American people so they can understand what the federal government does. You can’t have a democracy if the public doesn’t understand what its government is doing.”

Documents submitted were reviewed by electronic readers and human reviewers to determine whether they met the act’s criteria that communication be clear in its wording, structure and design so the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it and use it.

“Traditionally, people have written for either their boss or their boss’ boss or the attorneys,” with little attention given the audience, Cheek said. So it will take time to rid government communications of “gobbledygook.”

“We’re just skimming the top-level stuff that is accessible to the public,” she said. “We won’t run out of work.”

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