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Implementing Policy in Government

April 02, 2015
I interned this summer in the Office of the Executive Secretary (Exec Sec) at the Department of the Treasury. The Executive Secretary is the central process unit for the department and acts as a filter for all material that goes to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary.  Exec Sec employees review every document that goes to the Secretary, so the material is complex and varied and the work is fast-paced.

By Adam Garnick, SAS’15

I interned this summer in the Office of the Executive Secretary (Exec Sec) at the Department of the Treasury. The Executive Secretary is the central process unit for the department and acts as a filter for all material that goes to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary.  Exec Sec employees review every document that goes to the Secretary, so the material is complex and varied and the work is fast-paced.  I was exposed to a wide array of policy areas, especially because this summer was eventful for the Treasury Department and the entire federal government.  Sitting in the front office at Treasury also exposed me to the processes and operations necessary to keep a federal agency running.  In addition to the daily task of helping compile material for the Secretary, I also had the unique opportunity to help my boss, the Executive Secretary, with the implementation of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 at Treasury.

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010 as part of his effort to increase transparency in government.  The Act requires all federal agencies to write “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”  The Act describes plain writing as writing that is “clear, concise, well-organized, and consistent with other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.  Such writing avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity.” 

Before getting to Treasury, I had never heard of the Plain Writing Act (I guess most people haven’t).  While it may not be the most well-known piece of legislation, there is a growing movement of people (including President Obama) that believes plain writing in government is crucial to strong governance.  Citizens go online and solicit hard copy literature to read about federal programs, laws, or benefits that might apply to them.  The documents that explain these programs, laws, or benefits have historically contained so much jargon and technical language that a non-expert wouldn’t be able to decipher what the document means.  It is a massive problem when a government is ineffective in communicating with its citizens, and the Plain Writing Act seeks to remedy that.

In April 2011, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memorandum to the heads of Executive Branch agencies providing final guidance on implementing the Plain Writing Act.  The Act requires agencies to use plain writing in any document that is necessary for obtaining a federal government benefit or service or for filing taxes, provides information about a federal government benefit or service, or explains to the public how to comply with a requirement that the federal government administers or enforces.  Following the release of the directive, OMB delegated responsibility for oversight of and assistance with implementation of the Act to the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).

PLAIN is a working group of federal employees from different agencies that supports the use of clear communication in government writing.  It has been meeting informally since the mid-1990s.  OMB tasked PLAIN to assist in issuing plain writing guidance for federal agencies, so PLAIN focuses on plain writing training and implementation.  Notably, Congress did not appropriate any funds for this bill, so PLAIN offers free training for federal agencies on a volunteer basis.

While OMB and PLAIN were important players in the implementation stages of the Act, they are minimally involved in the enforcement of the Act.  In fact, I am not aware of any penalty imposed on agencies for not complying with the Act.  The Center for Plain Language (Center) filled this vacuum, however.  The Center is a non-profit organization that helps government agencies and businesses write clearly.  In 2012, it released its first annual Plain Language Report Card, which evaluates how well federal agencies are doing implementing the Plain Writing Act.  Grades are based on technical compliance with the Act (administrative requirements that were described in the OMB directive) and the quality of sample documents, reports, or websites submitted by the agency for evaluation.  While the Center (or any other organization) does not have the ability to impose penalties for a failing grade, its report card receives notable press coverage.  The Center uses the press coverage as its penalty to embarrass agencies that have failed to comply with the Act and as a reward for those that have.

Federal Plain Language 

In 2013, Treasury received an F for its compliance with the Act and a D for its plain writing.  The Washington Post, among other media outlets, published the Center’s report card.  This was due in part to Treasury failing to submit a package of materials to the Center for evaluation last year, but also because Treasury did not have a focused strategy to comply with the Plain Writing Act.  In response, the current Executive Secretary, my boss, was put in charge of bringing Treasury up to speed on its compliance with the Act.  I worked closely with him on this project and saw firsthand the challenges of implementing policy in a large government institution like Treasury.

The first step we took was drafting an implementation plan, which served as our foundational document for compliance.  The second step we took is one of the most important aspects of implementing policy, whether it is the Affordable Care Act or the Plain Writing Act: increasing awareness among stakeholders that the policy exists.  Many people in our constituency (Treasury employees) either didn’t know what the Act entailed or didn’t know it existed.  In turn, we launched a plain writing awareness campaign.  We published a blog post on the widely used intranet website for Treasury employees, successfully encouraged the Secretary to send an email to Treasury staff expressing his commitment to plain writing and compliance with the Act, and identifying a plain writing coordinator in every office and bureau in the department to increase intra-departmental coordination.  These things, seemingly menial tasks on paper, take a long time and a lot of strategy to develop and execute.

We also focused on the substantive aspects of the Act, such as training employees how to write more clearly.  One of the smaller aspects of this effort was reviving a previous tradition of sending a weekly grammar and style email to Treasury staff entitled “Tip of the Week,” which was well-received by the Treasury community.  We also worked on longer term solutions for trainings that we hope will considerably improve writing throughout Treasury.  These will begin to be rolled out in the coming months.  Among other improvements, we made significant progress over the summer and will hopefully see results both when the Center for Plain Language releases its 2014 Report Card in October and when more citizens can better understand Treasury documents. 

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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