Why can’t federal agencies communicate with us more clearly?

Christopher Axene | November 1st, 2010

Actually, federal agencies will soon be required to communicate more clearly with us. Earlier this month, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, which will require federal government agencies, including the IRS, to write public documents in easy-to-understand language. This means items such as tax forms, federal student aid applications, Veteran’s Administration forms and even form letters from the IRS will receive a makeover.

The federal agencies will have until July 2011 to begin working on “plain language” changes to their communications, and must have the revised documents in place by October 31, 2011. Each agency must also appoint a “plain writing” official to oversee the communications efforts and train employees in the art of plain writing. The new law provided $5 million to implement and enforce the “plain writing” standard.

We expect the resulting communication to appear more user-friendly to all who receive letters, notices or access instructions and guides from the agencies. Taxpayers, for example, should be better able to understand why they’ve received a tax notice, what action they need to take and what the consequences would be if they don’t respond. The revised communication should allow more taxpayers to be able to respond to the notices on their own if they choose to do so.

The efforts to improve communication in government agencies have been discussed for several years. Vice President Al Gore established the Plain Language Action Network back during the days of the Clinton administration in 2002, and more recently IRS Commissioner Douglas Schulman created the Taxpayer Communications Tax Group in 2008 to work on improving IRS communications efforts.

The new law does not, however, require the federal government to simplify the language of laws or the hundreds of regulations federal agencies write to enforce them. The plain language law also does not provide the right to sue an agency or appeal to internal procedures within an agency for not providing plain language documents. Instead, Congress will be the only body that can enforce the plain language statute.

Although the enforcement of the plain language law may not seem very strong, Congress might use the law as an additional way to determine future funding for the various agencies. Agencies that don’t comply could risk losing funding in future budget talks.

Look for “plain language” documents from the various federal government agencies to begin use by late next fall.

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