Feb 2, 2009

Transparency Requires Plain Language

Dictionary page with definition le-al-eseWe have 113 days left to get to transparency, participation and collaboration. People are already referencing and re-using the language in the President's memo on "Transparency and Open Government."

Today, I read a draft paper that was all about "utilizing Web 2.0 and social media" in achieving the goals of the President's memo. I came upon an acronym that I didn't understand (again!), and it hit me like a 25 mph wind coming across the quad on a -13 degree day in Ann Arbor.

How transparent can something be if you can't understand it? So what if the content is structured? So what if it's in a feed? So what if you can mash it up? So what if you post every piece of potential legislation 5 days before signing it? So what? If you can't understand it because it is written by bureaucrats and for bureaucrats in some wonky-tonky lingo that requires a secret handshake and a decoder ring, it just doesn't matter. It's like it isn't there.

So, in addition to all the great techno-tools to help with participation and transparency, I would like to add the tried and true tool of clear writing. Specifically, Plain Language.
Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:
  • Find what they need;
  • Understand what they find; and
  • Use what they find to meet their needs.
There are many writing techniques that can help you achieve this goal. Among the most common are:
  • Logical organization with the reader in mind
  • "You" and other pronouns
  • Active voice
  • Short sentences
  • Common, everyday words
  • Easy-to-read design features
No one technique defines plain language. Rather, plain language is defined by results—it is easy to read, understand, and use.--See more at plainlanguage.gov.
For transparency to succeed--or, in other words, for government to make sense to citizens--we need to start with the basics. I can't participate in the debate unless I understand the choices.

Adding the call to using plain language--not legalese, governmentese, technicalese or gobbledygook--needs to be integrated into each step of the transparency process.

See some great before and after examples of plain language applied.


  1. Gwynne - I'm singing your song. I often say in my classes that if we can't communicate, we can't serve. It's as simple as that. Annetta Cheek and Thom Haller have been carrying this banner forever. I'd love to see the Web Managers Council make a vow to do a plain language scrub of the top 50 pages (top tasks and/or most used) of at least the Cabinet level websites in the next 4 months. We've got to start somewhere! You go, girl. It's the right thing!

  2. @Candi, thanks! And especially to shout out to Annetta Cheek and Thom Haller. They are both the standard bearers and fabulous teachers!

  3. Kudos on your "discovery" and your highlighting this news. I "second" Candi's call for the Web Council to include plain language as an essential quality in successful web structure.

    A good "tip" for government writers (and those interested in government transparency) is to examine any documents for the deadly "disease of familiarity" -- are we as writers so familiar with our content that we haven't considered if our readers understand? This certainly holds true when we consider the acronyms we so often rely on.

    THOM (thom@thomhaller.com)

  4. OK, "I screwed up." is fairly plain, and pretty much invites participation. "Let's work together", "I am listening", and "What do you think?" are good. Hey, I think I'm getting the hang of this. Let me know if any of this rings any answer tones... (Barry)


I hope that you will read and comment, ask questions and make suggestions. I just ask that you simply stay on topic, respect other people’s opinions, avoid profanity, offensive statements, illegal content, and other unpleasantries. Since this is my personal blog, I reserve the right to delete any comment.