Federal Plain Writing Mandates
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 follows in the footsteps of previous attempts to require Federal agencies to use plain language since the 1970s.
|Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of Open Government…. Transparency, public participation, and collaboration cannot easily occur without plain writing.|
|— OMB Preliminary Guidance for the Plain Writing Act|
To learn more about the evolution of Federal plain writing mandates, see the following topics on this page:
- Early Momentum in the 1970s
- A Policy of Noninterference in the 1980s
- Clinton-Gore Initiative in the 1990s
- The Plain Writing Act of 2010
Early Momentum in the 1970s
Many experts agree that the plain writing movement began in the 1970s when the Federal Government encouraged regulation writers to be less bureaucratic. President Nixon, for example, created some early momentum when he decreed that the Federal Register should be written in “layman’s terms.”
Then, in 1979, President Carter issued Executive Order 12174 to encourage agencies to draft forms to “elicit information in a simple, straightforward fashion.” He also issued Executive Orders to make Government regulations “cost-effective and easy-to-understand by those who are required to comply with them.” The NRC and a few other Federal agencies responded by publishing regulations that were more clearly written, but the efforts were erratic and inconsistent.
A Policy of Noninterference in the 1980s
In the 1980s, President Reagan adopted a “laissez faire” policy of noninterference with regard to plain writing. Toward that end, he rescinded President Carter’s Executive Orders and allowed individual agencies to decide whether to make plain writing a priority. Some (including the NRC) did, but most didn’t.
Clinton-Gore Initiative in the 1990s
On June 1, 1998, President Clinton revived plain language as a major Government initiative by issuing a memorandum, directing all Federal agencies to use plain language in all new regulations by January 1, 1999. He described plain language as follows:
By using plain language, we send a clear message about what the Government is doing, what it requires, and what services it offers…. Plain language documents have logical organization; common, everyday words, except for necessary technical terms; ‘you' and other pronouns; the active voice; and short sentences.
President Clinton primarily directed this message at Government attorneys and others who author Federal regulation. He also directed Federal agencies to use plain language in all other written communications with citizens and all new documents (other than regulations) that explain how to obtain a benefit or service or how to comply with a requirement the agencies administer or enforce.
President Clinton assigned Vice President Gore to monitor and encourage this initiative. Vice President Gore believed that plain language promotes trust in Government, and said, “Plain Language is a civil right.” As the lead for the plain language initiative, he subsequently provided implementation guidance to assist Federal agencies in complying with President Clinton’s directive.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 formalizes key parts of President Clinton’s memorandum as law, and requires Federal agencies to write “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” It goes on to explain that “plain writing means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.” The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) further expanded on that definition, as follows, in its Preliminary Guidance for the Act, dated November 22, 2010:
Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of Open Government. In his January 21, 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, President Obama made a commitment to establish “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Transparency, public participation, and collaboration cannot easily occur without plain writing. Clear and simple communication can eliminate significant barriers to public participation in important programs for benefits and services. Avoiding ambiguity and unnecessary complexity can increase compliance simply because people understand better what they are supposed to do. Plain writing is no mere formal requirement; it can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative or administrative goals, and it promotes the rule of law.
See The NRC’s Plain Writing Action Plan, Reports, and News for details on the steps we've taken to put this guidance into practice.