The first report card from the Center for Plain Language is out, and, not surprisingly, the grades aren’t all that good. It’s going to take time and instruction for the federal bureaucracy to lower the fog index to a level that the average taxpayer can penetrate.
The nonprofit’s aim is to make sure that bureaucrats who have been mired in their own intra-agency lingo produce tax instructions and aid applications in understandable language.
‘We’re making progress, but we still have a very long way to go,’ said center chairwoman Annetta L. Cheek in comments to the Los Angeles Times. The results of the center’s compliance review, released last week, bear out that observation.
Bureaucratese is a way of official expression that obscures meaning and intent. It renders clear language into gobbledygook, the drift of which isn’t evident to the layman.
One reason so many taxpayers pay to have their income taxes done by a third party is the welter of regulations that govern tax payments, breaks and penalties.
Another is simply that the language detailing tax rules is often incomprehensible to the uninitiated.
The center has noted some progress on the clarity front by the Internal Revenue Service, as it seeks to follow the intent of the Plain Speaking Act, passed in 2010. The IRS, however, wasn’t among the agencies reviewed this year.
This year’s winner was the Department of Agriculture. It received the only A — no small achievement for the nation’s largest bureaucracy.
In fact, it did better than even the National Archives. That agency should have been able to manage more than a B, considering the proximity of all those classic prose works, such as the Declaration of Independence. The only other agencies to score as well as a B on basic requirements for communicating with the public were the departments of Defense and Labor.
The lowest score was an F by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA apparently has done little to comply with the law other than appoint a compliance officer. Surely the VA recognizes the importance of clear communication with the former servicemen who make up its client list.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who wrote the Plain Speaking Act, isn’t satisfied with the general results of the initiative.
“It is clear that improvement is needed in implementation,” he wrote in a request for a hearing to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“Correct execution of the law will cut burdensome red-tape for small businesses, save taxpayers money, and help all Americans understand government forms and documents,” he wrote. All are worthy goals that evidently aren’t being met by most federal agencies.
Homeland Security, for example, was given only a D by the center. Or that was the letter grade. But its numerical grade was 38 out of 100. In most scoring systems, 38 percent rates an F.
When it comes to assessing clarity, we hope that the Center for Plain Language isn’t grading on a curve.