Clear messages in DC

Victoria Law Foundation Executive Director Joh Kirby writes from Clarity2012 in Washington DC, where she is presenting the findings of her Churchill Fellowship on best practice in community legal information.

Photo of Executive Director Joh Kirby in front of the Supreme Court in Washington

Executive Director Joh Kirby at the Supreme Court in Washington for the 2012 Clarity Conference

“Washington DC is a town that sends clear messages. Almost every government building sends a message. Stand under the portico of the US Supreme Court and you will see inscribed into it the words Equal Justice Under Law. It pretty much sums up the work of the court. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Clarity2012, a conference on plain language in the law, is being held here.

Scratch a little deeper and read some US legislation and you might have the opposite response. US government communications have often been criticised as being too long, complicated and formal. The government itself recognised this in 2010 by passing the Plain Writing Act. The Act requires all government communications (not legislation) to be written in plain language. The definition of plain language in the Act is writing that is clear, concise, well-organised, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience (section 3).

The Act is a huge step for any country particularly one as large and complicated as the US. It shows a commitment to its citizens for open and transparent government. But an Act such as this does not come without challenges. On the first day of the conference we heard from a number of organisations facing the practical issues of its implementation.

The size of the challenge is phenomenal. Just think of the US Internal Revenue Service, for example. They collect over $2.4 trillion in taxes and deal with 141 million personal tax returns each year. So far they have redesigned 72% of their 1000 forms. But they can already see how this has made significant savings for the organisation through greater compliance and less queries. They now view plain language as good business sense.

One of the requirements of the legislation is that staff be trained in plain language. Organisations like the Internal Revenue Service employ tens of thousands of people. Many have taken significant steps to meet this aim, often with humour and imagination. Information raising campaigns, competitions, webinars and videos have all been used to reach staff and keep the message on track.

A video on bullets was launched at the conference.

But this badge has so far been one of the hottest items at the conference. It was used to promote one of the organisations plain language programs.

No plain no gain badge

This badge is one of the hottest items at Clarity2012

The effectiveness of the Act will only really be proven over time. But, at the moment it is all looking positive.

(And just for the record you might be amused to know that the inscription on the US Supreme Court was drafted by the architect – the phrase fitted and looked good!)”

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