Section 6219 of the state government code requires "each department, commission, office or other administrative agency of state government" to write "each document" in "plain, straightforward language, avoiding technical terms as much as possible, and using a coherent and easily readable style."
So what is this "plain, straightforward language?" There are some good examples of state writing out there; check the reports by the Senate Office of Research, for example. Bad writing is easier to find. For example:
"Pursuant to Section 80110 of the California Water Code, the Rate Agreement between the State of California Department of Water Resources (the 'Department' or 'DWR') and the California Public Utilities Commission (the 'Commission' or 'CPUC'), dated March 8, 2002 (the 'Rate Agreement'), and Division 23, Chapter 4, Sections 510-517 of the California Code of Regulations ('the Regulations'), the Department hereby …" bla bla bla for another 30 words.
This writing isn't buried deep in some legal document. It's the first sentence -- all 70 words of it -- in a 60-page report about energy, I think. And I didn't find this report by drilling far into a department Web site. I found it at the top of a home page under "Recent News."
The writer might defend it as a technical, legal document that takes sophisticated training to write and understand. That's a weak defense and it doesn't excuse it from Section 6219. The law doesn't say it's OK to write confusing, bewildering, dense text, if it's too difficult to write it clearly.
The point of the law--on the books since 1982--is to let the public understand what its government is doing. Dangerous, huh? Many people I've talked with think so. They shake their heads and condescendingly ask: "You want us to dumb it down?"
Albert Einstein, who often dabbled in technical subjects and abstract ideas, once said, "If you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well."
I'm guessing, but I bet the only reason this report saw the light of day is that there's a law or regulation requiring it be made public. That's sad: A public report that the public can't understand.
So, how do we fix this? How do we get the state to write clearly?
First, state executives, including legislators, must expect everyone in state government--lawyers, engineers, scientists, educators, secretaries, guards--to write clearly. It's got to start at the top.
I've had mid-level managers tell me that they're afraid to write clearly. Their bosses expect them to write using bureaucratic jargon or dense legalese. But executives I've talked with say they don't want the jargon or legalese. There's a disconnect. It's up to our executives to reconnect and make sure everyone knows the boss values clarity.
Second, it's not good enough to have a few good writers or editors to backstop the hundreds of poor writers. That's the public information officer model.
It's flawed because executives pick and choose what's important to the public. They give it to the PIO who translates it in a press release. Meanwhile the original writer continues to write badly. And the public still can't easily understand the original document or other documents the executive suite has decided not to translate. Nothing improves.
Finally, make a simple plain-language course available to all state employees. Offer it online.
Most people know how to express themselves clearly, but they don't do it. Instead, when they sit in front of their computer they go tense, stiffen and start pounding out the gobbledygook.
The online class would stress the state values clarity, not bureaucratese. It would teach that short sentences are good; short words good; and clarity is easier when subjects and verbs are close together at the front of each sentence. It would teach that unclear, jargon-infested writing is pretentious, costly, can be dangerous, and it's rude. And it would teach the best writing happens when writers rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite.
Finally, the course would explain all state workers are writing for the public, not the boss.