Over my lifetime I’ve filled out more than my share of complex, opaque and too-often incomprehensible government forms.
And God only knows how much of my 78 years I’ve wasted slogging through bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo when simple, clear writing could have done the same job quicker, easier -- and without putting me and millions of others in a bad temper.
I’m far from the first to complain about this. Yet despite periodic attempts by public-spirited busybodies to improve matters by advocating plain and clear government writing, not much seems to have worked. There are exceptions, however.
In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, which requires “clear government communication that the public can understand and use” and issued a couple executive orders to that end. Four years later, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order requiring the governor’s office and all state agencies to use plain language. The idea has gained enough currency that state employees have started treating “plain language” as a verb, as in “Did you plain language this yet?”
And in Michigan, a Detroit design outfit, Civilla, is working with the state on a pilot program to help ordinary citizens understand how to fill out forms to qualify for public assistance for food, child care, emergency relief and other urgent expenses.
The hope is that thousands of Michiganders will get help more easily and quickly than they have been. But “there isn’t an overarching plain language policy in place in Michigan,” according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s press secretary, Anna Heaton.
I learned all this from Andy McGlashen’s article in last week’s Bridge Magazine about efforts to prune back bad writing in government documents. The state’s application for public assistance is apparently the longest in the nation – more than 18,000 words and more than a thousand questions. McGlashen points out this is one reason Michigan citizens leave unclaimed more than $1 billion a year in federal money aimed at helping poor people.
Overall, fixing government writing is supposed to save citizens’ wasted time and, maybe, also save money by cutting out overlapping government forms and bureaucratic make-work.
All this came powerfully to mind last week, when my wife, Kathy, and I talked about a book she was reading, George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, which describes a terrible world of big brother government requiring “newspeak” from all citizens. The book’s power is intensified by Orwell’s simple and clear writing.
Orwell is also famous for his six simple rules for good writing.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I’d like to think the idea of simplifying and clarifying government writing would be popular. To that end, I’m encouraging conscientious readers to grab current examples of bad government writing and send them to Bridge Editor David Zeman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
He’ll publish the best (or worst) examples in hopes of encouraging more state and local government workers to get with the program and pay attention to the writing they inflict on us.