White House cooks up a turkey

Federal IT people had been waiting months for guidance on how to implement the Modernizing Government IT Act. The law establishes special funds agencies can tap to update old systems.

Last week the Office of Management and Budget issued that guidance.  It delivered 2,600 words of barely-understandable jargon.

Why oh why does government writing have to be so … so … so … abstruce?

After reading this document, I sought a second opinion. I sent it to CEO Fergal McGovern of Visible Thread. The company’s algorithms analyze text for readability and clarity. Analysis showed the OMB guidance contains 36 long sentences, or 27 percent of them. Twenty-six sentences use passive voice, which can lower clarity and add words. Nearly half the sentences run on.


The document isn’t nonsense. But to decipher it you need at least a bachelor’s degree. McGovern said that, based on Census numbers, two-thirds of the U.S. adult population would not be able to understand this document. You could say, well, CIOs and others who have to follow it all have college educations. But is that really how the government should be writing? I’ve got a bachelor’s degree, and I had to read some sections several times to grasp the meaning.

Take this sentence for example:

“The Board will distribute information and communications regarding the TMF, including updates to the submission and evaluation process, a charter governing Board operations, evaluation criteria for project proposals, and any other relevant information to www.policy.cio.gov.”

How about this instead: Check www. policy.cio.gov for new information from the Board and about using the modernization funds. That’s 14 versus 35 words.

Or make a list:

Check www.policy.cio.gov for new information about:

  • The Board and its operations
  • The submission and evaluation process
  • Evaluation criteria.

I’m not trying to be a nanny here. But gosh, the MGT Act authorizes up to $250 million for modernizing. Given the urgent need to update so many government computer systems, the law and this guidance matter. Maybe no rube will ever read White House guidance documents — or any federal document. That doesn’t excuse turgid, bureaucratic writing. It goes against the idea of transparency. And it makes a lot of extra work for the people who do have to figure it out.

This sort of writing can also affect the public directly.

Case in point: A while ago I interviewed Melissa Emrey-Arras,  a director from the Government Accountability Office.  She chided the Veterans Affairs Department for the way it handled Gulf War Illness claims. She found it particularly galling that VA’s rejection letters were badly written. So badly, “veterans may be unable to make a fully informed decision on whether to appeal.” Emrey-Arras told me GAO staff squinted at sample letters, trying to figure them out. They all have degrees. I couldn’t get my hands on one of those letters. I wanted to run it through Visible Thread.

Clear writing by government happens to be the law of the land. The Plain Language Act of 2010 saw to that. No one seems to pay attention. But the government operates a website devoted to it. I found some good advice there.

Grammar has rules. But effective writing isn’t entirely about rules or dogma. English teachers and scolding copy editors tell us to avoid the verb “to be.” But sometimes it works. “All the world’s a stage …” didn’t do too badly.

Long sentences can work, too. Here’s one: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The preamble runs 52 words, but memorable ones.