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April 2006 Contents

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Usable Regulations:
Legislation Pending in U.S. Congress

By Thom Haller
thom@thomhaller.com

Thom Haller is the Director of the Center for Plain Language in Washington DC.

We know usable content matters. Now we have an opportunity to share this news with our Congressional representatives and fellow U.S. citizens.

On March 1, 2006, witnesses testified before the House Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs. Their testimony supported what plain language and usability experts have long known: Clear, concise, easy to understand regulations will save the government (and taxpayers) time and money.

This testimony occurred in support of the Regulation in Plain Language Act of 2006 (H.R. 4809), one day after it was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI). Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) is co-sponsoring this bill; plain language advocates hope to encourage other House members to follow his example in the immediate future.

Annetta L.Cheek, vice-chair of the Center for Plain Language, offered several examples, during the March 1 testimony, demonstrating the convoluted language often used in regulations. She was joined by Joseph Kimble, law professor and plain language expert, who cited examples of the government and private sector firms saving money by using clear language in communications, including forms and letters.

Cheek also explained that poor language has a “trickle down effect.” In other words, when the government issues a difficult-to-understand regulation, other agencies, organizations, and businesses are likely to incorporate that language into their own documents.

The reason for this, Cheek said, may be that these entities fear they may misinterpret the original content in attempts to clarify it. By using plain language from the start, the government can help reduce incorrect interpretations and the costly errors associated with them.

Plain (Not Dumbed-Down) Language
Plain language is language written so that readers can understand it the first time, without having to re-read the text multiple times to translate it into usable information. A document’s intended audience determines what plain language is for the content of that document—meaning the language is custom tailored for specific groups of people. For example, plain language for architects could differ greatly from plain language for educators. Usability is the bottom line.

Plain language is not “dumbed down,” according to Kimble and Cheek. It’s simply good writing, clear and concise, that avoids jargon and incoherent sentence structures. Experts—and most writers—agree that writing clearly can be challenging. It requires attention to detail, a keen eye for ambiguous areas, and a thorough understanding of the document’s intended audience.

And, to write clearly, a document’s author(s) must fully comprehend the subject matter and be able to translate it into accessible content. It’s also impossible to hide uncertainties and ambiguities in clearly written text.

Implications for Usability Experts
H.R. 4809 has many implications for usability professionals, including:

New contracts: Government employees are often immersed in the world of convoluted “government-speak.” They may need assistance in preparing plain language content. Contracts may blossom out of the need to meet the requirements of the bill.

Opportunities for educators: Government employees may seek plain language classes or seminars, and federal agencies may become interested in hiring educators to present workshops for employees whose jobs entail regular writing assignments.

Employment opportunities: Should the bill become law, government and private sector employers will need to ensure that they have content experts on staff who are skilled plain language writers. Since most usability professionals understand and adhere to the tenets of plain language, this scenario would likely present them with new employment opportunities in a variety of settings.

Next Steps
Currently, the H.R. 4809 is in the earliest stages of the legislative process. The Committee on Government Reform must decide whether or not to present the bill to the House. To become law, the bill must pass through the House and Senate, and be signed by the President.

Act Now: If Congress adjourns for the summer without voting on H.R. 4809, the bill will be considered dead, and the process must begin anew. For this reason, it’s critical that additional co-sponsors are signed on, and that as a champion for usability, you contact your representatives to urge them to move this bill forward.

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