Lessons from the 2021 Federal Plain Language Report Card
Since 2011, the Center for Plain Language has issued a yearly report card to show how well federal agencies follow the Plain Writing Act. The report card evaluates these agencies on organizational compliance and writing quality.
For the 2021 Federal Plain Language Report Card, the judges focused on the main Coronavirus pages and the main Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request pages of 21 executive branch agencies, including all 15 cabinet-level departments. Digital.gov and the Plain Language Community shared the Report Card results.
During this event, speaker David Lipscomb provided some useful tips to make web content meet plain language standards:
- Include introductory text that explains what users should expect and how they will use the page.
- Write any action steps in the correct and logical order.
- Chunk content into manageable, short sections.
- Use large, visible headings that start with clear action verbs.
- Put the less actionable information at the bottom.
- Keep language brief and to the point; don’t include extra information that will slow down users.
A Quick Case Study
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) FOIA request page is a perfect example of an agency following plain language guidelines. David Lipscomb explains how this page received such an outstanding report card score in this short video clip:
David Lipscomb also shared examples of some mistakes to avoid when producing web content:
- Avoid graphics that don’t convey much information and that visually dominate the page.
- Don’t include information that doesn’t clearly explain what a user can do with it.
- Don’t write information reflecting the agency; focus on the user and what they can do.
- Don’t write long, complex sentences that use legalistic, formal language.
- Avoid long lists of hyperlinked resources that can overwhelm the user.
We can continuously use the results of the Plain Language Report Card to guide future website content. These examples, with both high and low report card scores, remind us what we should and shouldn’t do to ensure clear communication for all users.