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Federal Employees Speak

Here’s what front line employees have to say about plain language.

1. As an analyst for customer satisfaction service at one of Federal Emergency Management Administration’s teleregistration centers, my job was to call recipients of disaster assistance to determine how satisfied they were satisfied with the way they were treated when they called to register or for assistance with the government process for assistance. One of the areas we found disturbing was the number of people who did not understand what the letters they received told them. Further research on those letters revealed their readability statistics were at the 12th grade or above, compared with the average reading levels in most states of 6th grade (or below in some cases). FEMA assistance is primarily geared to those with inadequate or no insurance. These letters were telling them they needed to have a letter from their insurance company first indicating what they would not cover. However, the design of these letters and the readability was not communicating this fact. The surveys indicated that many people just read that they were denied (based on no information regarding their insurance), and gave up on receiving any assistance, rather than submitting the required insurance information. Using the Plain Language web page and resources, this workgroup proposed revisions to the letters that would help an applicant understand what was going on with their application and how to proceed. I left the organization before the full results were implemented and cannot tell you how much difference the letter revisions made, but I cannot help but hope a better understanding of the process will result in better service to the public.

2. The Food and Drug Administration is the nation’s principal consumer protection agency. Decisions made by FDA affect every American every day. In 2000, consumers spent $1 trillion—more than 20 percent of their income—on hundreds of thousands of products whose safety and effectiveness are FDA’s responsibility.

FDA is responsible for making sure consumers understand important information about FDA-regulated products, such as food and drugs, to help them make healthy choices. To accomplish this, FDA is using plain language in a wide variety of documents, from regulations and guidelines for industry to food and drug labeling for all Americans. By using plain language, FDA is sending clear, understandable information to all of its audiences, which helps the agency carry out its mission of protecting and advancing the public health.

3. Garbled speech raises doubt—Plain language erases it.

By using plain language, writers in my organization (in the Defense Department) have saved time and removed doubt. Plain language allows readers to understand text on the first reading. They don’t waste time asking “What in the world does this mean?”

4. Plain language has helped Insurance (in the Veterans Benefits Administration) by taking the focus off of ourselves and putting it where it belongs, on the customer. I think exposure to plain language has benefited our entire organization, and it is reflected in both our writing and our attitude. The focus on PL let everyone know that is OK to be clear, that we don’t have to hide our message behind big words and bureaucratic language. On a personal level, PL has changed the way I approach all communications with customers, especially web pages, web based forms and applications.

5. As an attorney working for the Social Security Administration, I spend many hours deciphering bad writing; writing which is unclear, redundant and needlessly complicated. This takes time and wastes money. Likewise, if I don’t write clearly, I’m not serving the needs of the judges and claimants that read and rely on my work. The tools of Plain Language show you how to write more clearly and effectively, how to spot bad construction, and how to reduce the time it takes to ‘boil down’ complex material into key points.

6. I am an Air Traffic Controller in the U.S. Navy and also a Student Pilot. I was thrilled to hear about the new changes of “Plain Language” on FAA Orders and publications. I truly believe this will resolve many gray areas that everyone in the aviation community faces on a daily basis.