US Senate passes bill to abolish ‘government speak’ in agency documents

By on 19/12/2022 | Updated on 19/12/2022
Jumbled Scrabble letters

A bipartisan bill aimed at replacing existing legislation on clear writing in government has passed unanimously through the US Senate in a fresh move towards making official documents easier to understand.

The Clear and Concise Content Act, which follows the Plain Writing Act of 2010, has gained support from Gary Peters, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chair, and senator James Lankford.

Peters praised the bill and said that it does “exactly what its name implies” by making government communications easier to understand, especially for people with disabilities or low English proficiency.

Deriding what he termed “government speak” Lankford said that federal agencies “don’t need to use jargon, countless legal citations and confusing references to laws so only ‘insiders’ can understand”.

The new bill defines plain writing as “clear, concise, well-organised”, and aims to help federal government better serve “disadvantaged or traditionally underserved” citizens.

Read more: Digital dialogue: COVID-19 and the modernisation of public sector communications

The bill does not yet have a counterpart in the US House of Representatives, but if passed there, it would replace the existing law in around a year’s time.

According to the bill, this would broaden the scope of government content covered by the current law to “any document that is necessary for obtaining any [federal] benefit or service or filing taxes”. The new law would apply to all documents that provide information about benefits or services, or that explain to citizens how best to comply with federal government requirements.

It would also apply to any US federal agency whose operations, policies or guidance are deemed “of material importance to [that] agency and are posted publicly”. 

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would be expected to issue new guidance under the Clear and Concise Content Act. Such guidance would incorporate metrics and encourage agencies to seek public feedback on their compliance. OMB would be expected to report to Congress on the state of implementation annually.

New Zealand bans government jargon

The Clear and Concise Content Act bears similarity to a law passed in New Zealand in October which bans jargon from government communications. Under the Plain Language Act, it is a legal requirement for public documents issued by the government of New Zealand to be understood “after one reading”.

Read more: New Zealand considers banning jargon from government communications

The Plain Language Act is part of the New Zealand government’s mission to promote internal customs and practices that boost representation and inclusion. It targets commonly used government jargon such as ‘innovation readiness’, ‘change-adaptability’ and ‘internal pain points’.

Sarah Pallett, a member of parliament for New Zealand’s ruling Labour Party, said in a speech to the House of Representatives that the place for “flowery, inaccessible language” belonged to poetry and literature, “not in government legislation”.

However, some members objected to the bill. Tweeting in October shortly after the bill passed into law, National Party MP Simeon Brown said that the Act added new layers of bureaucracy to New Zealand’s public service “with no outcomes for [New Zealanders]”.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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