Elmer Smith: Translating BureauBabble into English

GOO has a way of trapping citizens.
GOO has a way of trapping citizens. (SIGNE WILKINSON)
Posted: May 24, 2011

LAST OCTOBER, President Obama signed a law that gave all government agencies just one year to rewrite their regulations in plain English.

Somewhere deep in the recesses of the Capitol complex, the guys from GOO swung into action. They raised their alert status to DefCom III, canceled all leaves and doubled security at every gate.

The president had set into motion an initiative that threatens the future of an entire class of bureaucrats. The Government Office of Obfuscation (GOO) is not going down without a fight.

GOO is to simple concepts what the La Brea Tar Pits were to mastodons, a place to get stuck and die. The way it works is that, every time some citizen starts a sentence with a phrase like "Why can't you just . . . ," GOO dispatches a leaning tower of babble with a Ph.D. in condescension to bury the poor schlub in a blizzard of technical terms.

It's BureauBabble. GOO's crowning legacy was to translate these verbal-misdirection moves into written form. Some still speak a little English. But BureauBabble is the language they dream in.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 aims to change all that. It seeks "to improve the effectiveness and accountability of federal agencies by promoting clear government communication that the public can understand and use."

"Sec. 4: Responsibilities of Federal Agencies" clearly states that "Beginning no later than [one] year after the date of enactment of this act, each agency shall use plain writing in every covered document . . . the agency issues or substantially revises."

That's about as plain as anything you'll read in a government document. But Annetta Cheek, who chairs the board of the Center for Plain Language, is wary.

"We all know that it's not a silver bullet," Cheek conceded. "People aren't going to uniformly start writing clearly overnight. This has become a culture."

Cheek understands that culture. Before she became the reigning czarina of plainspeak, she was a government official who was fluent in BureauBabble.

"Once you've learned all those habits, it's hard to stop it," Cheek said. "Someone says we need to do next year's report. They give you last year's, and you have this terrible model to work from.

"It takes a lot more time to upgrade this piece of trash than to do what they did last year.

"Even if they had the will, they still don't always have the skill to begin writing clearly."

The center has helped institute the act's training sessions. It has also produced a set of guidelines from their aptly named Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).

But we've seen similar initiatives get derailed. President Bill Clinton signed an order that required all government agencies to rewrite their documents in plain language. That was in 1998.

Somewhere between concept and execution, it got entangled in a thicket of dangling participles.

"It was just a memo," Cheek recalled. "Someone told the president that this wasn't executive-order material. Psychologically, the memo didn't have the same weight as an executive order.

"But this time, we finally got it to the Senate floor. It passed unanimously, and the president signed it on Oct. 13. I met with the Office of Management and Budget. They seemed pretty intent.

"The bill required each agency to institute its guidelines by April 13. That happened on time."

Sounds serious enough. It requires annual compliance reports and postings on the plain-language section of each agency's website.

But the guys from GOO seem to have worked their magic in the enforcement provisions, which read:

"No provision of this act shall be construed to create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by any administrative or judicial action."

Huh?

Faster than you could say "heretofore notwithstanding," the guys from GOO returned to their pinochle game in the basement of the Office of Obfuscation, secure in the knowledge that there will always be a place for them in government.

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith

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