Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs

Plain-Language Project Wins County Quality Award

By Tim Bissell
Deputy Director, Department of Consumer Affairs
County of Los Angeles

Plain-language efforts honored. Left to right: QPC Chair Jaclyn Tilly Hill, County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, DCA Investigating Supervisors Joe Johnson and Edith Garcia, DCA Public Information Julia Hong, DCA Chief Deputy Director Tim Bissell, DCA Volunteer Coordinator Espie Hernandez, DCA Director Pastor Herrera, County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, and County CAO David Janssen.

The Award

ON 26 October 2005, the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) received the Best Quality Improvement Award for its plain-language project. The Chair of the County's Productivity and Quality Commission (QPC), Jaclyn Tilley Hill, presented the award at a luncheon in the Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. The County Board of Supervisors later acknowledged the award during their meeting on 8 November 2005.

To promote plain language throughout all departments and commissions of the County, the Quality and Productivity Commission developed a plain-language Web site and posters at :http://qpc.co.la.ca.us/pl.asp

The Plain-Language Project

L.A. County Annual Report
L.A. County Annual Report: A county of superlatives, it has the largest and most diverse population of any county in the U.S. Its economic product would make it the 17th largest country in the world. It has over 90,000 full-time employees and operates four hospitals, 35 out-patient clinics, two museums, a music center, 89 libraries, and the world's largest jail facility.

The Department of Consumer Affairs provides consumer services and information to the 10 million citizens of Los Angeles County. We respond to over 700,000 requests for services and information each year.

In 2004, the Department of Consumer Affairs received a grant from the County's Quality and Productivity Commission. Working together with plain-language consultant William DuBay, the staff of the DCA redesigned, rewrote and edited 100 tip sheets and web pages, 50 recorded information messages, 5 forms, 38 form letters, 5 procedure manuals, and produced a PowerPoint presentation to teach plain-language. Mr. DuBay also provided two training programs for staff and a training program for the Quality and Productivity Managers of the County.

Mr. DuBay also worked independently to edit materials and conducted individual coaching sessions with managers and staff working on plain-language documents. The re-design of DCA procedures included a new standard structure and the Total Quality Management objectives of customer focus, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and data-driven processes.

The Department began working with Mr. DuBay in 2002. The purpose of this project was to further develop plain-language practices in the DCA. The goal was to translate our public information materials into plain-language and to teach plain-language writing principles and techniques to DCA staff and the managers of other departments working with the County's Quality and Productivity Commission.

The Problem

The DCA produces and distributes consumer information in the form of tip sheets, form letters, web pages, and recorded information messages. Investigation showed that they were written at an average 11th-grade level and some DCA documents were written as high as the 15th-grade level. Only a small percentage of the public can read at the 11th-grade level and above.

The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey reported that the average adult in the United States reads at the 7th-grade level. This study breaks reading ability into five levels of literacy proficiency as in this chart:

Literacy Level Grade Range Percentage
of Population
1 Rudimentary1-2 21%
2 Basic3-6 27%
3 Intermediate 7-10 32%
4 Adept 11-15 17%
5 Advanced16+3%

The Solution

The solution was to rewrite DCA public-information materials in plain-language to make the documents more understandable to the general public. Creating plain-language documents requires more than bringing documents to a grade level your audience can understand. Documents must be logically organized and made clear if readers are to know or do something. If they are to do something, the steps must be clearly spelled out. Additionally, illustrations and graphics should be used to make documents more appealing and easier to read.

Plain-language implementation also requires cultural change within the organization. Staff are trained to be aware of who their audience is and to choose language and materials that the audience can easily understand.


The readability of our DCA forms, tip sheets and web pages were improved by an average of four grade levels, from 11th to the 7th grade. This represents a 150% increase in predicted audience comprehension and retention.

Cost Savings—34% Reduction in Support Calls

The Small Claims Advisor Program phone messages previously began at grade level 9.5. After rewriting in plain-language, they are now at grade level 6.7.

Consumers calling the Small Claims Advisor Program can choose from more than 50 recorded messages on topics such as filing and processing their case, defending a case in Small Claims Court, and making appeals and collections. After listening to a message, callers can chose to be connected to an advisor.

Previously, an average of 4,822 callers requested to be connected to an advisor each month. Since implementation of the plain-language messages in January 2005, that number has dropped to 3,171 per month, a 34% reduction.

The benefits of the plain-language messages are:

  1. Reduced caller wait times,
  2. Reduced wait times for walk-in litigants,
  3. Less complex calls are answered by the recordings without need of advisor assistance. Counselors now are free to spend more time answering more complicated questions.
  4. More productive use of staff and volunteer time.

On average, an advisor can handle eight calls per hour. The 1,177 fewer calls a month would take 213 hours to answer. The in-kind base rate for volunteer counselors is $25 an hour. Total savings is $5,325 per month, or $63,900.00 annually, just for the Small Claims Advisor program. Improvements in the messages of other departments were equally impressive.

Lessons Learned

In order to help other departments planning to adopt plain language, we can make a few comments.

Recorded Messages

This project was unique in its attention given to the comprehension of recorded messages. It demonstrated significant savings resulting from the use of plain-language in audio recordings. Similar initiatives in other County Departments may also generate savings.

The Value of Baseline Studies

To motivate managers to buy into a plain-language program, we recommend making a study of one or two highly visible documents, which can be used in a before-and-after baseline study.

Savings using plain-language are available to County Departments that send form letters to the public. Does the department want everyone who receives a particular letter to respond? If so, the response rate of the old and new plain-language versions can be measured. Does the department want the form letter to essentially explain everything, requiring no one to respond? If so, the number of calls and inquiries received before and after plain-language versions can be measured. The same opportunities and measures can also be applied to forms.

The positive results of this project were not surprising. A significant body of research for over 80 years has demonstrated that plain language improves comprehension and retention. This project confirms that plain language is one of the best investments the County can make.

Animated Plain-Language DVD

Invasion of the Space Lobsters


AN advanced race of giant lobsters from outer space land on Earth "sunny side up." but no one knows why. An utter failure of communication with these crustaceans catapults the world towards catastrophe. What can save us? A little straight talk, perhaps?

Director and writer Janet Perlman and the award-winning NFB Animation Studio produced the six-minute DVD. They used the classic 1950s B-movie plot to pit the virtues of clear language and good communication against bafflegab and gobbledygook.

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the Canadian Labour Congress collaborated on the project, along with several unions, federations of labour and the National Literacy Secretariat, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

The film premiered at the Plain Language International Conference in Washington DC in November, which brought together over 300 clear language experts from several countries. Reactions included the following:

"I loved the film . . . it’s flexible for different audiences and leads
to fantastic discussion". Susan Milne, Chair, Plain Language International, Waterloo, Ontario.

"Humor is the best way to promote plain language. For this reason, the film was the highlight of the PLAIN International conference for me .. . . clever, brilliant".
William DuBay, Impact Information, Costa Mesa, California

"This delightfully funny short film brings the issue of clear language
right into your own backyard".
Sally McBeth, Manager, Clear Language and Design, Toronto

To order the DVD, go to: Canadian Film Board: http://wwwwww.nfb.ca/store

On-the-Job Training of Writers

CAN training help workers in business and government write more clearly? That was the question asked in the September 2005 issue of Training magazine by managing editor Holly Dolezalek in her article, "The Clarity Challenge."

She writes, "Business writing can be just plain awful... Bad writing in business causes all kinds of confusion, waste errors, and loss of productivity while readers scratch their heads or fall asleep as they muddle through incomprehensible e-mails and unreadable reports."

An article in the New York Times, 7 December 2004, stated that $3.1 billion is spent annually on training employees how to write. In spite of this, Dolezalek claims, the problem remains: "At least in writing, we literally don't know what we are saying to each other." She recommends four books on the issue:

  1. Why Business People Speak Like Idiots (Free Press, 2005), written by three employees of Deloitte & Touche, the accounting firm that developed the Bull Fighter, a computer program for removing jargon.
  2. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss (Gotham, 2004). This funny best-seller takes up common errors of grammar and punctuation.
  3. Death Sentences by Don Watson (Gotham Books, 2005). This book makes a strong appeal for more clarity and less management-speak in business writing.
  4. Winning the Paper Wars by Don M. Ricks (Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990). Though out of print, it is available at used bookstores. This book frames the problem well and has timely solutions.

Company-Embedded Language

Don Ricks examines the way that bad writing practices becomes embedded in the writing of business or government, which he calls BoG. "It obscures rather than clarifies," he writes, "angers rather than mollifies. The person who writes BoG in hopes of sounding professional comes across as being confused and inable to communicate."

Jon Warshawsky, one of the authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, says, "People learn to write in their company's idiosyncratic way by parroting the people a couple of notches up the career ladder."

Such language, Dolezalek writes, has staying power, "because it's scary not to use it. Writing or speaking briefly and clearly can sound abupt or unprofessional, particularly to someone who isn't sure of their messge or its reception. Often, when people write they're thinking much more how it sounds than about what it means—or whether anyone else will understand it."

Schools Don't Help

For what to do, Dolezalek asks R. Craig Hogan, the director of the Business Writing Center in Bloomington, Illinois, and Fiona Barnes, director of the Center for Management Communication at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Executive trainer Hogan: Good writing comes with hard work and method.

Hogan says that the schools don't help. "Business has not communicated the skills it wants to K-12 or higher education," he says. "Models for teaching are based on a creative-writing format."

As a result, students do not regard writing as a tool for communication. "They are not taught to conceptualize, that messages have parts and wholes. We're not teaching teachers how to teach kids to think through messages and communicate them clearly."

Fiona Barnes says many of her students come in knowing how to write verbosely and at length, but not clearly. "Business writing is supposed to promote action," she says. "Something is supposed to happen as the result of your writing. If somebody misunderstands, or doesn't come to a meeting because you couldn't get across that there was one, then you've failed. If you're boring, if you're off topic, or if you don't know what you're talking about, you won't achieve what you set out to achieve."

Teaching students to get right to the point, then support it with further information, is half the battle, she says.

U. of Florida's Fiona Barnes: "Business writing is supposed to promote action. Something is supposed to happen as the result of your writing."

Does Training Help?

According to Hogan and Barnes, much of the $3.1 billion is going to training that doesn't work. Both say that one-day or three-day workshops are mostly useless. Learning to write well is hard work and takes time and method.

Hogan says that good writing is based on compentencies: structure and the rules of grammar and usage. Training must include testing to measure competency at the end of training. "But sending people to workshops doesn't work. Businesses want to believe want to believe that writing deficiencies can be fixed in three days. I don't think most people want to hear that they can't."

Barnes believes that the worst enemy of good writing these days may be devotion to speed. She says many of her students have not realized that good writing is the result of successive edits and re-writing. They often respond to the idea of revising is, "I don't have time to revise," not realizing the costs of poor writing down the line. Much of communication today is merely making up for what should have been better written in the first place.

Needed: A Culture of Clarity

Barnes says it is difficult to haul an entire company down the path of better writing. A few employees with the right skills cannot do it by themselves. It needs the commitment of top management and the whole organization. "The way a company writes reflects the culture, whether or not it creates it. It is a symptom of that culture."

Better writers become better thinkers. Brian Hanington, CEO of Backdraft Corp., a writing training company in Ontario, Canada, says, "Writing practice makes people smarter!" A company with better writing standards communicates more clearly and efficiently. It stands out from its inarticulate competitors. "Articulation of thought," he says, "is an element of intelligence, and you can increase your intelligence through writing."

While $3.1 billion spent on training seems to be a lot, it is nothing compared to the billions wasted with poor writing and the failure to communicate. Business and government agencies can pressure schools and colleges to teach more functional writing. They can also rely on editors to improve the quality of writing. Editors not only create and maintain standards, they also guide the development of writers across the workplace.

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, Ph.D., International Consultant on Adult Literacy

"I finally got around to reading your article. It is very good, scholarly, and complete. Even though readability formulas have been around for years, I think that the biggest current problem is that they are not widely used. Much education of writers, editors, and general population is needed."
—Edward Fry, Ph.D. Reading Consultant.

"I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the level of scholarship in your amazing work, The Principles of Readability.
—Eldon McMurray, Ph.D. Candidate, Utah Valley State College.

Plain Language in the News

Parents can't understand educators:

Executive curbs plain-English proposal:

Sensible forms: A form usability check list: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/sensibleforms

Evening News gets plain-English award:

Engineering students learn plain language:

Australia's Plain English Foundation:

Gobbledegook cluttering education:

Food makers to list allergens:

Scary airplane jargon:

Make credit-card firms speak plainly:

Plain language welcome in the workplace:

State report card on schools fails to inform: http://www.smmirror.com/MainPages/DisplayArticleDetails.asp?eid=2254

Grannies fighting illiteracy:

Literature and illiteracy in Dixie:

Overcoming health illiteracy: