Retorts: We need a new Bill of Writes

CAN you understand this writing? Many government documents aren’t much better at clarity.

Editor’s note: In last week’s column, Jim pointed out the things that citizens can do to make their communities better. This week, a big – but inexpensive – idea about how government can help citizens be better partners in democracy.

“Transparency” is one of the buzz words of the 21st century. But evidence of true openness in government or big business is so thin as to be – ironically – transparent in an empty sort of way.

Now, I don’t mean that those in Washington or Sacramento or Wall Street are deliberately trying to keep information from me or you, although I’m sure that happens as well. What I am referring to is the chronic inability of many people of authority to speak and write clearly.

As someone who has been in journalism, education and the military, I have long been hip-deep in nearly impenetrable jargon, double-speak and mysterious acronyms. It’s often been my duty as an ink-stained wretch to try to make sense out of the miles and miles of legalese and professional slang-speak, and after more than 40 years at it, there are still many times when I am scratching my head.

It all starts, of course, with the legal profession, wherein lawyers appear to be paid by the word, like pulp fiction authors in the Thirties. Why use five words when you can use 15? I have long since surrendered that profession to the Demon of Obfuscation which seems to possess them, but there is still a place to draw the line.

Some in public life complain that the public is not knowledgable about government and other civic issues, and there’s some truth to that. Part of it is, frankly, apathy, but the other part of the difficulty is understanding just what government people are saying, in print or in person.

Let’s begin with government terms like RFP, ENA and DDA. Mix in educational slang like STAR, API and Title I. Let’s not forget the military with its own mystical mil-speak of TOT, TOE, TOA, AAR and “hot wash.”

Who outside those professions knows that these terms mean? Almost no one. But who’s paying for all of things those terms represent? All of us. So how is the average Joe or Jane supposed to maintain an informed interest in their government when they are snowed under as such?

Take a look at an agenda for any local agency. It is dipped in jargon. What the heck is a “mitigated negative declaration”? How about a consolidated annual performance and evaluation report? My personal favorite: pre-existing non-conforming use. Sounds like a disease your insurance company won’t pay for.

The blame lies not with the poor folks who write this stuff so much as the culture that educated and surrounds them. This is how they were taught to prepare documents and reports. It’s like asking an Italian not to talk with his hands (we can, but it’s not as expressive …).

I remember a school board meeting at which an administrator remarked that “the curriculum is articulated both horizontally and vertically.” Translated into actual human speech, that meant, “kids at all the schools learn the same stuff, and when a kid is promoted, what’s taught builds on what was taught before.”

This is what is called “plain writing.” Use jargon if you have to, but avoid it like herpes. If you do have to use certain legalisms, accompany them with “plain writing,” including definitions as needed.

In 2010, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act, which requires that federal government agencies use understandable wording in every document they issue or revise. Most importantly, the law requires that employees be trained in plain writing and compliance with the law be monitored.

Wouldn’t it be nice for a citizen to read an agenda or staff report and be able to quickly understand what it means? Wouldn’t it be nice for public officials to “speak” the same language as the folks they serve? It wouldn’t cost much, and might save millions of reams of paper.

Information is not the same as communication. If I was speaking French to you (I do know a little), I’m giving you information, but chances are you have no idea what I am saying (especially with my pronunciation …). Unless I can get my meaning across to you, there’re been no communication, no matter how many nouns, verbs and adjectives I use.

Clear writing and speech is the ultimate transparency. It promotes public awareness and self-government. Let’s see if local governments have any interest in – as we used to say in the Sixties – “telling it like it is.”

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts usually appears on Wednesday.


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