Send Bridge the worst examples of bad government writing

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.

These include:

  • 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 (dzeman@bridgemi.com).

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.

About The Author

Phil Power

Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, non-partisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@hcn.net.

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Comments

Kevin Grand
Tue, 03/07/2017 - 8:01am

I'll toss in my $0.02 on how to simplify this, but not exactly in the way you might think.

Mandate that any legislation (and appropriation) specifically cite the authority in the Michigan Constitution for it's creation (or spending).

If the sponsor of a bill cannot cite the authority, or any current program cannot do the same, the bill will not go to committee for further consideration.

Granted that this will put a damper on things like SB-97 and the "Gilbert Bills", but I'm sure that we'll easily be able to manage without them.

duane
Wed, 03/08/2017 - 1:04am

Language is not the issue, for no matter whose version of ‘simple’ is used it will be inconvenient and leave room for interpretation. For some the shorter word will be less descriptive than longer ones, a particular phrase will have different connotations for different groups. The laws/rules/regulations have their phraseology, connotation as any business or profession.
If one wants to better understand what is written they simply need to practice a bit and to recognize the perspective of the writer [what are they trying to ensure].
When each rule writing body [whose rule we are government by] was formed their priority was to ensure the ability to enforce [citing, fining, and hold up to public rebuke those to be controlled]. The vast majority of people accept this as appropriate, it fits their parental experience. The different is that the competitive economic environment [technology and social change] are turning those rules into barriers to performance [the performance in the areas being regulated and the in the economy as a whole]. What many think are hard to understand rules, are in fact what has been written in a way to facilitates enforcement. Trying to change the language confronts a strong and self-serving barrier of needing citations, fines, and headlines.

If you want to ease the burden of conformance, encourage creativity and innovation and growth the purpose of the rules need to be changed. Rules need to move from enforcement [command and control] to performance [results]. Such a shift will change the nature of the language from legal test to facilitating results, from one of helping compliance officers to one of help those being regulated, from being driven by history to one driven by the future and change.

Barry Visel
Wed, 03/08/2017 - 9:21am

I'm not sure about bad writing but now that I'm retired and dealing with Social Security (for both myself and two special needs children on disability) I am constantly pleasantly surprised with the clarity of their communications. Also, private efforts, like TurboTax, help getting through government forms (at least I haven't been audited yet).

Charles Farrell
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 1:20pm

Phil,
I would love to get your thoughts on this study we ran: http://info.visiblethread.com/2017-us-municipalities-website-clarity-index

We undertook a study of the websites of 275 randomly sampled US Municipalities. The analysis measured up to 100 pages on each site across these 4 dimensions:
• Readability – How readable is the content?
• Passive Language – Active Language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences is passive?
• Long Sentences – What proportion of all sentences are too long?
• Word Complexity Density – Complex words make web pages hard to understand.

The top 5 Municipalities were:
1. EAST PRAIRIE MO
2. AUBURN AL
3. WATERTOWN MA
4. TRUMBULL CT
5. MASSILLON OH

The bottom 5 Municipalities were:
271. LONG BEACH CA
272. BELLEVUE NE
273. TOPEKA KS
274. LANCASTER CA
275. NEWARK CA