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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 20, 2018

Fed agencies grades slip in ‘plain writing’

By Ed Tibbets, Quad City Times | Oct 13, 2017

The federal government got lower grades this year in how clearly it communicates with the public on selected writing samples, according to a new study released Thursday.

The study, the 6th annual, by the Center for Plain Language, a Virginia-based non-profit, rates 21 federal agencies on plain writing. And in its "2017 Federal Plain Language Report Card," it said the overall grade was a B. That's about half a grade lower than the previous year. In numeric terms, the center said, the grade fell by 11 percentage points.

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, who helps publicize the report card, said on a conference call the new grades are disappointing.

"I will say as a former college teacher, I wouldn’t be happy with that. I’m not sure the American public should be, either," he said.

The center rated agencies on Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQ, pages, as well as data infographics.

The Social Security Administration rated the highest with an A+ for its FAQ and a B for its data infographic. The Department of the Treasury got a D+ for its FAQ and a C- for its infographic. The treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were the only agencies that got grades as low as a D+. The center said it hadn't given out anything lower than a C for the past two years.

Loebsack did point out the U.S. Agriculture Department got A grades in both categories.

The center did change the way it graded the agencies for this year's report. In 2016, graders rated public forms and instruction, not Frequently Asked Question pages. Data infographics weren't rated at all last year.

Chip Crane, who is on the center's executive board of the center, acknowledged the change in methods but said he would have thought that an FAQ would receive a higher grade than a set of instructions.

Asked on the conference call whether this was a reflection on the Trump administration, officials instead theorized the lower grades may be the result of changing from one administration to another.


"Maybe it hasn't been as much on the front burner for some agencies because of all the other transition; you know, all the cabinets have a new secretary. Some have had a couple of different ones already," Crane said.

The study stemmed from a 2010 law, which was authored in the House by former Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. The law is aimed at pushing federal agencies to communicate more clearly with constituents.

The center says it got involved because the law did not have a mechanism to review or enforce compliance. The group says it does not get government funding for its work, and the grading and preparation of the report is done by volunteers.

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