Too often, we are expected to go faster and faster for political reasons. Too many people think plain language change is quick and easy.
Plain Language in Organizations
To help people cope, Kate Harrison and I wrote Plain Language in Organizations: An Action Plan (ebook) but this plan addresses the plain language change in a single organization. The newest developments apply to an entire industry, a U.S. state, or a national government apparatus.
Delay: Country by country
Recently in South Africa, the plain language trainers, writers aountrynd editors had been rushing to satisfy clients who needed to comply with the approaching deadline set by their new Consumer Protection Act. And businesses spent millions over the 18-month advance period. The original date for effect has now been delayed from October this year to March 2011. Even after 18 months for preparation the government has not filled all the commission posts nor released regulations to guide compliance efforts.
Elizabeth Warren has been given the task of setting up the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by July 2011. Because hers is a temporary appointment, the Bureau won’t be able to publish regulations until a permanent director is approved by the U.S. Congress. Not a bad idea to take some time.
One U.S. government employee is quoted elsewhere saying:
Making plain language a requirement, rather than just a best practice, means agency web managers will be able to make a stronger case for allocating dollars towards content producers and writers… It isn’t easy to simplify some government content, so you need that expertise to be truly successful. Plain language would mean better service for citizens, which is what every federal web manager is striving to provide.
Changing the whole government’s style
Soon the U.S. President will sign the Plain Writing Act 2010 (almost certain since Obama was a sponsor of the previous bill). Another change process will begin as all government agencies scramble to comply. This legislation may run into problems with its deadlines also.
My friend and a plain language advocate, William Dubay , has commented elsewhere on this new Act:
Government interest in plain language began in the 1970s in response to consumer complaints. Most states at that time enacted laws that required plain language in agency regulations and insurance policies. Some of these laws have been very effective. Insurance commissioners regularly enforce the insurance requirements but most of the agency requirements are lacking enforcement and standards.
The message may be loud and clear on jargon, but weak and vague on standards, funding, and enforcement. Managers will be loathe to implement new demands for which no resources have been provided. Americans may be losing money because of poor writing practices, but good writing practices take training, method, and practice, which all cost money.
Clear definitions still to come
For all of these programs, one challenge is to decide what sort of efforts or results will satisfy the expectation of plain language. An agreeable definition is hard to come by. The international, non-government Plain Language Working Group of experts is still working on this too. Even agreement amongst plain language advocates is hard to reach.
Dominique Joseph, a language analyst in Ottawa, has provided some links for support on managing change:
- Kotter’s 8-step change model: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newPPM_82.htm
- Website based on Kotter’s “Heart of Change” book: http://www.theheartofchange.com/
- Chip and Dan Heath (in their book “Switch”), also talk about the importance of using both “feeling” and “thinking” to create the motivation for change.
- A favorite story — Gloves on the boardoom table: http://www.theheartofchange.com/ It’s wonderful
Still, for a mere $15 Plain Language in Organizations is a good guide for use within a department or division of a larger entity.
picture credit: Cover image of a foundational text of the plain language movement, the 1966 Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go by Bureau of Land Management employee John O’Hara; via the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.