Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Achieving Transparency through Plain Language

What is the cost of obscurity? The cost of wordy, unclear, pompous, and dull? Well, the VA saved $40,000 per year from rewriting one standard letter in plain language. The Navy reduced reading time by 17-23% and saved $350 million per document. GE saved up to $500,000 by reducing help desk staff costs by rewriting a software manual. That's just a few examples of what clear and effective communication can save in time and money.

Experts claim we can easily cut 25% from our writings. Think of this in the context of saving disk space on computers or shelf space in reference libraries. How many fewer sheets of paper would the Department of Defense use were it to reduce all texts by one fourth? On the NPR website is an article which tells of a 1989 study of Naval Officers who took 17% to 23% less time to read a plain language version of a document versus the document in its original form. Furthermore, their comprehension increased after reading the clearer text. By placing dollar figures on the results using an average hourly pay figure for officers, the study determined the Navy would save from $27 million to $37 million on the low end and $57 million to $73 million on the high end just from the time saved reading plain language documents. If all Navy personnel read plain language documents, then the saving would be in excess of $250 million each year!
Yet, anyone who has read a credit card disclosure , mortgage contract, or any legal contract for that matter, can tell you it's almost impossible to comprehend, even for the most learned Americans, in some cases, let alone, the average citizen with an 8th grade reading level. And let's not even start on the unintelligible entangled monstrosities that are credit derivatives...the ones that brought our economy to its knees.

So, why can't we, the people demand the right to understand what we pay for, vote for, and depend on a daily basis? Why is it legal that corporations and institutions can obscure documents and disclosures on purpose, clearly, for their own gain? After all, the U.S. Constitution states the role of the federal government is to "promote the general welfare". That is, government should provide a level playing field that allows every citizen the chance to take advantage of what the United States has to offer.

However, a confused American is very profitable American, and that's the name of the game -- profits before people. The objective is clearly to make most Americans feel powerless and stupid. The profit makers/power brokers know very well that no one likes to admit their failure to comprehend the tax code, real estate papers, statutes, executive orders, affidavits, jury instructions, insurance contracts, investment contracts, 16 page credit card agreements (printed on tissue paper in microscopic type, written on the "twenty-seventh" grade reading level) and all consumer-finance contracts and anything and everything written in legalese. Confusion is the best way to maintain the vast inequity built into our education and socioeconomic system.

There is no excuse. It's been proven that complex subjects can be translated into plain language with no loss of accuracy or precision. It's been proven that plain language saves time, money, and most importantly, sanity. As it states in the Principles for Long-term Credit Card Reform, "all the forms and statements that credit card companies send out have to have plain language that is in plain sight"...that this should apply to all government and private documents, from every industry so that all Americans are given the opportunity to comprehend and understand without hiring specialists that charge excessive fees that most of us cannot afford.

Links:

Center for Plain Language - wants government and business documents to be clear and understandable. They support those who use plain language, train those who should use plain language, and urge people to demand plain language in all the documents they receive, read, and use.

71-year old Chrissie Maher found the Plain English Campaign, 30-years ago, waging war on confusing language.

2009 Center for Plain Language Symposium -
National Press Club, Washington, D.C., October 30, 2009

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)

From slam poetry to plain language for health care

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