|City recognized for financial report in plain English
September 06, 2008
It's hard to beat plain English for understandable communication. Tallahassee City Auditor Sam McCall thinks that same basic rule should apply to a financial report, too.
Tallahassee has become the latest city to publish a "Citizen-Centric Report" as a means of communicating clear, understandable government financial information to residents and encouraging citizen involvement in the budgeting process. The distinction has been recognized officially by the Association of Government Accountants.
"This is the first year we did it," said McCall. The AGA is made up of about 15,000 financial-management professionals in federal, state and local government. Their concern is that if citizens are to hold government financially accountable, then they need information that clearly explains what government is doing and how it's spending the dollars it takes in.
"What they are getting and what they want are two different things," McCall said.
While many public officials and agencies today regard citizens as customers, he likes to think of them as owners — similar to the stockholders who receive company financial statements to know how their investments are doing.
While stockholders seek profits and return on equity, taxpayers expect to see what their money was spent on and what was accomplished. "Are we doing what the citizens expect us to do?" he added.
The four-page report begins with a description of the city's government and organization, leading into the services provided and how they are funded. One chart breaks down the sources of the various revenues, and another shows how they are allocated for police, parks, public works, debt service and other expenses.
And there is a distinct lack of jargon that often appears in such reports.
The AGA's initiative for financial reporting is called Advancing Government Accountability. The intent is to develop new thinking and practices in government accountability and transparency, promoting their value to the public as well as to those in government. The organization stresses the importance of government financial information that is clear and understandable, updated regularly, easily accessible and technically accurate in detail.
McCall says he is interested in Tallahassee residents' reaction as well, including areas of interest in which an audit may be warranted to determine whether the taxpayers are getting value for their dollars.
"I'm keeping a folder on all the responses I get back from people," he said, adding that nearly 40 have offered their input.
For a copy of the report, go to www.talgov.com/auditing/pdf/citizenreportt2007.pdf.
Full Story: tallahassee.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080906/BUSINESS/809060327/1003
|War on (buzz)words
August 01, 2008
Bad writing isn't just poor form, it's a national security issue.
Consider the following passages. The first is an adaptation, in modern Pentagonese, of the second:
The smaller and more agile forces collected here represent a select and elite band of highly motivated warfighters. In the event of adverse battlefield consequences, senior leadership will ensure that participants are suitably recognized in their next quarterly evaluation. Regardless of the maladaptations of combatants, the current operational environment will leverage their inherent capabilities and capacities and enhance total-force interoperability. Non-participants will regret that they did not have an integrated vision of our potential for full-spectrum dominance.
Which is to say,
[KING HENRY V]
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.1
No one expects the U.S. Department of Defense and the services to write like Shakespeare. But the disparity between these examples isn't just amusing, it's harmful to our security and unfair to the American taxpayer.
Bad writing in the Defense Department undermines U.S. national security. Alive and well in the corridors of the Pentagon and throughout the services, the misuse and abuse of language obscures major defense issues, alienates non-defense experts, and suffocates ideas. Put simply, bad writing wastes time and money. The United States can ill afford such waste in peacetime, much less in war.
Compared to troop retention problems or IEDs, poor writing may seem a distressingly petty complaint. When we consider how far-reaching its effects are, however, bad writing becomes anything but petty. While serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1984, General John W. Vessey Jr. put it bluntly, "From my own experience, I can tell you, more has been screwed up on the battlefield and misunderstood in the Pentagon because of a lack of understanding of the English language than any other single factor."2
Or as Mortimer D. Goldstein, who had a 25-year career in the State Department, responded to Vessey's words, "I suspect that the problem . . . is not so much a lack of understanding of English as the failure to write it so that it can be understood."3 From 1985 to 1986, Goldstein published a series of 20 articles titled, "Disciplined Writing and Career Development" in State Magazine.4 I would bet there is no better guide to, as Goldstein called it, "writing style and technique as they affect the practical task of communication."
How does bad writing hurt U.S. national security? Why is it worth getting worked up over wordiness, passive voice, and overused jargon?
Let's start with an example of Defense Department writing. This is the official definition of "Strategic Communication" as published in the Quadrennial Defense Review Execution Roadmap:
The ability to focus USG processes and efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives through the use of coordinated information, themes, plans, programs, and actions synchronized with other elements of national power.
To be clear, my aim is not to skewer the idea, but to challenge how it is expressed. First, note that as a definition of a noun, the above is not a complete sentence, but an exceedingly long noun phrase. It contains seven verbs (focus, understand, engage, create, strengthen, preserve, advance) and two adjectives derived from verbs (coordinated and synchronized). More than a few of these words are favorites in the Pentagon, surely familiar to a DOD audience. Even so, most readers probably need three reads to begin to understand what "Strategic Communication" means. Most are probably left wondering which verbs take priority. Shall we go forth to focus, to engage, to strengthen, or to synchronize? How do "processes" differ from "efforts"? And why specify "conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives?" Is there any time when the United States does not seek such conditions?
The definition is a victim of its authors' collective thoroughness,
a common pitfall in any large bureaucracy. In their attempt to include
every angle and every aspect, to describe each possibly related
component, to leave no stone unturned, the authors garbled the real
meaning almost beyond recognition. ...
|Plain and simple
July 01, 2008
Congress is on a crusade to clean up the language in federal documents. But gobbledygook is hard to kill.
|EIA launches plain language series to explain energy topics
May 01, 2008
Energy in Brief, released today, is a new series from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that explains important energy topics using plain language.
As the source of official energy statistics from the U.S. Government, EIA provides the most accurate, policy-neutral energy data and analysis available.
The new Energy in Brief series strives to make EIA information more accessible to energy novices.
“Energy education is a critical part of EIA’s mission. At a time when American consumers face many energy-related challenges, it is more important than ever to provide the public with reliable energy information in a format that is useful and accessible by the widest possible audience,” said EIA Administrator Guy Caruso.
Each Energy in Brief concisely answers a question of importance to the public. The goal is not to be exhaustive but to clearly cover the main points. The Briefs are designed to be visually-engaging web pages that are also printer-friendly.
The articles released today address the following:
The Energy in Brief series is available on EIA’s web site at: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energy_in_brief/.
Email delivery and RSS feed options are also available to receive the latest Briefs as they are released.
|AARP Financial Inc. survey finds: When it comes to financial jargon, Americans are befuddled
April 17, 2008
Most Americans find the language of Wall Street technical and confusing and may be making investing mistakes and missing opportunities as a result, according to a nationwide survey released here today by AARP Financial Inc.
More than half (52%) of 1,203 adults surveyed said they've made an investment where they had an unfavorable outcome —- like owing unexpected taxes or paying an early withdrawal penalty — because they felt "confused" by or "didn't understand" an investment.
"What we have here is a failure to communicate," said Richard "Mac" Hisey, Chief Investment Officer at AARP Financial, a taxable subsidiary of AARP. "The relatively straightforward process of saving for the future has become incredibly complicated."
"The research shows that investing has become unnecessarily complex, confusing and, in some cases, intimidating," Hisey said. "As a result, many American investors have saved too little — most with less than $50,000 for retirement — or are too intimidated to get started in the first place."
The survey of 1,203 adults age 18 or older was conducted by telephone from January 23 to February 10, 2008 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, a division of GfK Custom Research North America. The margin of error for the sample of 1,203 respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
"Many people are more likely to read the nutritional information on a cereal box than read a mutual fund prospectus before they buy," said Hisey. "The recent efforts by the SEC to simplify the prospectus are a long stride in the right direction. Investors need quality, not quantity, of information."
Less than one-third of those surveyed said they understood the terms "basis point," "expense ratio," or "index fund" well enough to explain them to a friend or co-worker. Not surprisingly, half of those surveyed described themselves as "not so" or "not at all" knowledgeable about investing, and more Americans feel confident in their ability to select the right surgeon for a major surgery than feel confident about choosing the right investments.
Financial Jargon: Costly for Many Americans
Over half—52%—of those surveyed said they've made an investment mistake because they were confused by or didn't understand an investment. Specific mistakes cited by respondents include failing to or waiting too long to invest because of confusing information (cited by 30%) and making an investment they regretted because they didn't understand it (28%).
"Financial jargon can have painful and enduring consequences," Hisey said. "Americans face enough roadblocks on the road to a financially secure retirement. Poor communication should not be one of them."
The survey found that one out of six Americans have failed to sign up for a retirement plan at their job because they didn't understand how it worked, and better than four in ten (44%) said they don't understand how an IRA account works.
Less than one in five (19%) survey respondents said they are very confident they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, due in part to this confusion.
|House passes bill requiring plain language in federal documents
April 15, 2008
The House overwhelmingly approved a bill Monday that would force the government to use plain English in its public reports, letters and documents.
The bill, HR 3548, would give agencies flexibility to define “plain language” and write their own guidelines. The Securities and Exchange Commission is one agency that publishes its own Plain English Handbook.
“This week, millions of Americans are finishing a confusing and oftentimes frustrating annual ritual: filing their federal tax return,” said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, the bill’s sponsor. “The Plain Language Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever … received a government document.”
A similar bill in the Senate, S 2291, passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee last week. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
Full Story: federaltimes.com/index.php?S=3479845
|Commentary: Unclear communication is costly, time-consuming
March 30, 2008
Today’s world is so complex that we must rely on others, especially the government, for information to keep us safe, secure and healthy. Taxpayers pay for the government, and they deserve to understand what it’s doing and what it’s telling them to do. Unfortunately, the government often serves up information in overwritten, wordy, highly technical language like the following:
“The amount of expenses reimbursed to a claimant shall be reduced by any amount that the claimant receives from a collateral source. In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this provision for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this provision.”
And what does all this mean? Simply that:
— If you get a payment from another source, the government will reduce its payment to you by the amount you get from that source.
— If you already got payments from the government and from another source for the same expenses, you must pay back what the government paid you.
Difficult, obscure writing like this is expensive, time-consuming and annoying. It puts citizens at risk and makes it difficult for federal agencies to fulfill their missions effectively and efficiently. It discourages people from complying with requirements or applying for benefits. The owner of a small business in Tulsa, Okla., asked 13 clients about their responses to difficult government communications. Of the 13, 10 said they might never respond.
When government communications are unclear, agencies have to write second documents to explain the original unclear document. They have to answer calls asking for explanations. They have to chase after people who fail to respond. They may even lose court cases because their communications violate rights to due process.
The other side of the story is equally compelling. Plain language — language the intended reader can understand and use on one reading — can save the government and the public time and money and help the government fulfill its mission better.
A Veterans Benefits Administration office rewrote one benefits letter in plain language. Calls to the office about that letter fell 90 percent. But even better, more veterans applied for benefits because they understood whether they were eligible and what they needed to do. In the end, more veterans got the help they needed because VBA rewrote this one letter.
Arizona’s Department of Revenue started a plain language effort that spread to other state offices. Here are just two of the results:
— The Department of Revenue saved $51,014 in a year from avoided phone calls after clarifying requirements.
— The Department of Weights and Measures collected an extra $144,000 a year after clarifying payment instructions.
Given such evidence, why does the government continue to use difficult language? It’s easier. Writing clearly takes hard work. And it requires clear thinking. It’s faster to pull out an old model and update it than to redo your document.
And, often, government writers don’t think much about the most important aspect of communication — the audience.
Fixing this problem will take focus and determination. Government writers will need new skills and will need to change the way they think about communication with the public. They need to recognize the huge costs imposed by poor communication and accept that it’s their job to be clear, not the job of the reader to figure out what they’re saying. Perhaps then government communication will serve citizens the way our democracy intends.
Annetta L. Cheek is chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language. She testified last month before the House Small Business subcommittee on contracting and technology on HR 3548, the Plain Language in Government Communications Act.
Full Story: federaltimes.com/index.php?S=3451004
February 06, 2008
Federal agencies have gotten better over the years at communicating clearly with the public. A quiet movement has bubbled along in pockets throughout the government for more than a decade, with advocates of plain language slowly making headway in convincing their bosses that it's more important to help people understand the government than to satisfy the general counsel offices and other protectors of bureaucratese.
The application for federal student aid, for example, is still a bit clunky but is much easier to complete now than it was in the 1990s. The Social Security Administration's benefits application process also is much smoother. A key factor in the government's improved communications skills has been the shift from paper to online. Plain language advocates took advantage of the move to the Internet by arguing that attention spans are much shorter when people are looking at a computer screen rather than at a printed booklet.
Of course, there's still much work to be done. Internal documents are written in laborious jargon, as are many regulations and Federal Register announcements. Annetta Cheek was one of the plain language advocates toiling in the bureaucracy until recently, when she left government to devote her attention to the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit that pushes better communication both in government and in business. Cheek is helping push a bill through Congress that would call on federal agencies to write in plain language. In 2007, companion bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate. This year Cheek will be advocating for more and more lawmakers to get on board the bandwagon. It's a tough sell, in part, because it's such a mom-and-apple-pie idea. Who is against plain language? So why pass a law requiring it?
But one previous lawmaker already is on board - former California Republican congressman Christopher Cox, who is now the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Last year, he pushed businesses to write disclosures required by federal law in language that the average investor could understand. For example, major public companies must publish documents each year justifying their executives' compensation plans. The SEC is encouraging companies to simplify the explanations.
Bureaucratese is a problem in the private sector as much as in government. Indeed, Cox's agency is asking investors about the readability of all disclosure documents they come across. The agency will use the findings of their survey to help businesses write more clearly.
|State targets bureaucratese to improve communication
January 06, 2008
If any government entity can confuse the public, it's the tax collectors.
That's why Gale Garriott, director of Arizona's Department of Revenue, was so intrigued when he heard tax collectors from Washington state raving about a program there that was making government easier to understand.
At a conference in late 2005, Garriott heard about Washington's "plain talk" initiative. The revenue department there claims to have collected millions more after rewriting confusing letters to taxpayers.
"I'm thinking 'Really? You just change words on paper and good things will happen?' " he recalls. Garriott began talking to Washington officials to find out more.
The plain-language movement has been around for decades, said Don Byrne, executive director of the Center for Plain Language. The Maryland-based non-profit advocates the use of plain language in government, law, business and health care. In the federal government, it geared up when Vice President Al Gore led a plain-language initiative. A handful of states now have plain-language requirements.
The goals are simple: Make documents understandable on the first read. Make them useful and easy to scan for information through better design, headings and bullets. Use language geared for the intended audience. Avoid jargon.
Improving government communication, Byrne said, can save money and help people comply with laws. In Washington, state officials hired consultants to help them rewrite government correspondence and train thousands of state employees in the principles of plain talk. After Garriott approached them, officials there agreed to send two Washington state employees to Arizona to share plain talk concepts with Garriott's staff.
Since then, a team within the Arizona Department of Revenue has identified about 400 form letters it would like to redo. So far, it has completed rewrites on about 100 of them, working to simplify, organize, shorten and make sure that they say what they are supposed to say in a way that doesn't require an accountant's interpretation.
|Gov. Gregoire honors eight leaders in Washington Plain Talk initiative
November 06, 2007
Governor Chris Gregoire today named eight state agency projects as
recipients of the 2007 Governor’s Plain Talk Award. This year’s
awards mark the first year that the Governor will distribute annual
Plain Talk awards, which will be given as recognition of outstanding
state agency plain language efforts.
Full Story: www.governor.wa.gov/news/news-view.asp?pressRelease=681&newsType=1