US FOIA Ombudsman Seeks Plain Writing in Responses

30 July 2012

The FOIA Ombudsman in the United States is seeking to make official FOI letters more readable.

The Office of Government Information Services in a recent blog post asked government agencies to submit their template letters and offering to help.

A recent Ombudsman’s blog post noted a law that went into effect in late 2011 mandating clearer language by in government communications.

“Unfortunately, it appears that plain writing fever has been less contagious in some agency FOIA shops than we had hoped,” the bog posts said. It continued:

We’ve reviewed hundreds of FOIA response letters, and unfortunately, not many of them are plainly written. So why all the complicated letters? We have a few theories:

  • FOIA is complicated. This is certainly true — the FOIA process is a product of bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is anything but simple. But complicated phrases and jargon only lead to more confusion.
  • Nobody likes to deliver bad news. Fees, exemptions, delays — every day, FOIA professionals must tell requesters things that they don’t want to hear. Talking around an issue by using extra words does not make that bad news any easier to take.
  • The buck has been passed. When a writer writes in the passive voice (as I just did), he or she hides the subject who is performing the action. For instance, it is more likely that a FOIA response letter will say “your appeal is in process” than it is to say “your appeal has been sitting on my supervisor’s desk for three weeks.”
  • Legalese is the lingua franca of the federal government. FOIA professionals often tell us that their attorneys are reluctant to make letters more readable. While we certainly understand that every word counts when it comes to legal matters, it is usually possible to simplify even the most complex legal arguments.

The office invited the submission of template FOIA letters and said “we are happy to make suggestions to make them more readable.”

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