Washington sees results translating bureaucracy's jargon into English

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The average person may find it tough to understand state government, but Washington state officials want to deploy changes to alleviate state personnel's employment of jargon and legalese that routinely pervade interfaces with constituents.

Or in plain speak: Talk to the public as you would talk to any other person -- simply, and in plain language.

In the 18 months since Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered all state agencies to adopt "plain talk" principles, more than 2,000 state employees have attended classes on using everyday language.

So words like abeyance, cease and utilize are out, replaced by suspension, stop and use.

"If people are able to apply for an environmental permit and get it right the first time because they were able to understand it, that's success," said Larisa Benson, director of the Government Management Accountability and Performance system.

When citizens know what the government is asking of them, there's a better chance they'll comply, officials have found.

For example, by rewriting one letter, the Department of Revenue tripled the number of businesses paying the "use tax," the widely ignored equivalent of sales tax on products purchased out of state. That meant an extra $800,000 collected over two years by the department, which had started its own plain talk initiative before the governor's order.

Gregoire says it's "a long-overdue initiative, but it's bearing fruit."

"When we just talk in a way that takes our language, government language, and throws it out, and talk in language everyone understands, we get a whole lot more done," she said.

Though other states have done some similar work, Washington state is believed to be the first to have a full-scale effort, said Thom Haller, executive director of the Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit center urges government and business officials to use clear, understandable language in laws and other public communications.

In 1997, newly elected Gov. Gary Locke issued an executive order requiring the Washington Administrative Code to be written and organized in a more simple way. In the mid-1990s, some state agencies started using plain language rules for training, on Web sites and in letters to the public.

The government of the District of Columbia started a plain language initiative in 2004, and many federal agencies have plain language programs as well, Haller said.

"We're seeing them embrace it because they're recognizing that clarity in structure and language is important," he said. "It enables people to get their jobs done more efficiently."

How did state workers start speaking bureaucratic gobbledygook?

"It's almost as if we have hundreds of different tribes out there with different languages," said Dana Howard Botka, the plain language program coordinator for Gregoire. "Knowing the language of that tribe is essential to belonging to it. There's pride in knowing the language of your profession."

Writing consultant Sharon Bridwell, who teaches up to three classes a month for state employees, said her students just need help breaking old habits.

"It's like bursting them free to do what they really can do," she said.

At a recent class in Olympia, Bridwell used slides and easels to write out pointers such as keeping sentences short.

Rich Coleman, a project manager with the state Employment Security Department, said he'd try to be more concise in his letters to the public.

"I'm more wordy than I would like to be," said Coleman, who corresponds with prisoners or their families to help them rejoin the work force. "It's an opportunity to see that the less I write, the more effective I am in getting the information across."

Botka said the heart of the plain talk initiative is to change the mind-set of state workers, to get them to think about the person who is reading the document or the Web page before they write it.

"We're talking about people's rights and benefits," she said. "If they can't understand them, then they really don't have access to their government."