Government communications are about to become clearer, more concise, better organized, and more useful to the public, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  Last week, OMB issued final guidance to implement the provisions of the Plain Writing Act of 2010.  The purpose of the Act is “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” 

In a memo to federal agency heads, Cass Sunstein, Administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, defined plain writing as being “concise, simple, meaningful, and well organized.”  Sunstein advised agencies to avoid “jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity” and not be unnecessary complex in their communications.  The memo called plain writing key to the government’s commitment to increase transparency and public participation.   Instituting plain writing will save the government money, increase efficiency, and improve public understanding of federal requirements, forms, and applications, Sunstein said.

Agencies are encouraged to follow “Federal Plain Language Guidelines.”  However, agencies can develop individual guidelines to make them more relevant, but should base them on these official “Guidelines.”  The memo acknowledges the special challenges agencies face when preparing technical documentation.  It advises them to consider the expertise level of the intended audience when following plain writing guidance. 

Under the Plain Writing Act, agencies must use plain writing when preparing “covered documents,”—documents necessary to obtain a Federal Government benefit or service.  Covered documents also include handbooks and information that describe the benefit or service, as well as guidance to the public on how to prepare reports or other compliance documentation for federal requirements.  The Act requires agencies to use plain writing for both paper and electronic communications. 

The memo sets two important deadlines for implementing plain writing.  By July 13, 2011, each agency must 1) designate a Senior Official for Plain Writing with responsibility for overseeing implementation, 2) create a plain writing area on its website. 3) notify and train employees on plain writing, 4) establish a process for ongoing compliance, and 5) publish an initial report.  By October 31, 2011, agencies will prepare all “new or substantially revised documents” using plain writing guidelines.  Agencies will also prepare annual reports on compliance beginning April 13, 2012.