The Mess in California

Can Arnold Bring Clarity to State Government?

by William H. DuBay

Back in the 1960s, consumer groups campaigned for plain language in commercial and government documents. Many states passed laws requiring plain language in government regulations, insurance policies, legal notices, commercial contracts, and consent forms.

The intent of the legislators to bring clarity to government and commerce is evident in the statutes. For example, in the California Government Code, we find:

Section 6215:
(a) Each department, commission, office or other administrative agency of state government shall write each document which it produces in plain, straightforward language, avoiding technical terms as much as possible, and using a coherent and easily readable style.
(b) As used in this section, a "state agency document" means any contract, form, license, announcement, regulation, manual, memorandum, or any other written communication that is necessary to carry out the agency's responsibilities under the law.

In the Administrative Code, we find:

Section 11346.2:
The agency shall draft the regulation in plain, straightforward language, avoiding technical terms as much as possible, and using a coherent and easily readable style. The agency shall draft the regulation in plain English.
Section 11342.580:
"Plain English" means language that satisfies the standard of clarity provided in Section 11349.
Section 11349:
"Clarity" means written or displayed so that the meaning of regulations will be easily understood by those persons directly affected by them.

Throughout the code, there are plain-language requirements, as in this regulation governing Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) in the Code of Regulations:

Section 15140:
EIRs shall be written in plain language and may use appropriate graphics so that decision-makers and the public can rapidly understand the documents.

Almost Complete Non-Compliance

The law could not be clearer. Throughout state government in California, there is little implementation of any kind. Although training is offered, few seem to know how to identify the audience of a document, much less its readability. I doubt if there are four people in the state government who know how to write at the levels required by law. These skills come only with training and method.

The average adult in the U.S. reads at the 7th-grade level. Nearly half of the population reads below the 6th-grade level. Most of the State of California documents are written at the college level. Less than 20% of the adult reading public reads comfortably at that level.

A pamphlet on Child Labor Laws is written at an 18th-grade level. A so-called "plain language" pamphlet on professional surveyors is written at the 15th-grade level.

What happens when people try to read documents that are over their reading level? Unless they are highly motivated, they stop reading. This means the government is spending millions of dollars yearly (and breaking the law) publishing documents that only a fraction of the public will read.

State Web Sites

The average Web pages for the State of California site are written at the 11th-grade level, which is not suitable for the reading public. Heading the section on California History and Culture is a dense 4,000-word essay written at the 15th-grade level, enough to scare anyone away. The lack of imagination and creativity that should have been employed on that page is breathtaking.

Having unreadable Web sites is not just California's problem. According to a recent study of 1,663 government Web sites by Darrell West of Brown University, 67 percent are at the 12th grade level and above and only 12 percent fall at the eighth grade or lower. Actually, California rates fifth among all the states. This does not say much, however, as it scores only 41 points out of a possible 100.

Remarkably, the agencies targeting general audiences have worse pages than others. Pages for corrections, education, housing, health, and human services are among those most difficult to read. They are organized more around the concerns of the bureaucracy than those of the audience.

When it comes to laws requiring accessibility for the disabled, compliance is even worse. Only 33 percent of government sites comply with the Internet's WC3 accessibility standards. Only 24 percent comply with the federal Rehabilitation Act. Only 12 percent of state sites and 40 percent of federal sites offer any translations in foreign languages.

You can find the Web-site report from Brown University at: http://www.insidepolitics.org/

A Question of Leadership

At the heart of the problem is the lack of firm commitment by leaders to bring clarity to government documents. The law is clear. The need is evident. We all wish the new governor of California well. He will have a tough time in bringing state government back to the people. He could start by bringing state documents back to the people—in language they can understand.

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