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Executive orders fail the plain English test

Federal Drive with Tom Temin: Executive Orders Can Be Hard To Implement If The Language Is Too Dense For Most 

Listen to the podcast with Fergal McGovern and Tom Temin here.


Federal News Network: Original Post

Memo to Biden White House: See memo on plain language. Why, oh why, are your thud-factor executive orders so, so, so wordy?

Having read, or tried to read, the recent executive orders on cybersecurity and on diversity and inclusion, I can only say they need a rewrite. They use correct grammar and spelling all right. But in the same way, Jackson Pollock used canvas and paint. Except the artist meant to be abstract.

Sensing these EOs were prime examples of how the government should not write, I asked Fergal McGovern to run them through his analytical engine. McGovern is the CEO of Ireland-based VisibleThread. The company’s software analyzes texts for meaning and clarity. It flags long sentences, fancy words, jargon, passive voice, adverbs, hidden verbs and other slop that makes documents hard to read. The company has at least two English-speaking governments among its clients.

One Visible Thread metric for readability is the reader grade level a document requires. Newspapers and agencies like the Government Accountability Office traditionally try to write to the 8th-grade level. The cybersecurity EO comes in at grade 16.6 — meaning it’s comprehensible only at the post-graduate level. The diversity and inclusion EO comes in at 16.4. In both documents, you’ll find sentences of 40-, 50-, even 60-some words. Some passages practically threw the comprehension meter into tilt, to grade 60.

You might say, well, people in government dealing with this stuff are college graduates, so what’s the big deal? McGovern argues — and I agree — you’re right about the audience. But why make it so hard for people? Why make people read paragraphs like this:

“(b) Using Federal standards governing the collection, use, and analysis of demographic data (such as OMB Directive No. 15 (Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity) and OMB Memorandum M–14–06 (Guidance for Providing and Using Administrative Data for Statistical Purposes)), the head of each agency shall measure demographic representation and trends related to diversity in the agency’s overall workforce composition, senior workforce composition, employment applications, hiring decisions, promotions, pay and compensation, professional development programs, and attrition rates.”

Or this:

“The Secretary of Homeland Security acting through the Director of CISA, in consultation with the Administrator of General Services acting through the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) within the General Services Administration, shall develop security principles governing Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) for incorporation into agency modernization efforts. To facilitate this work: (i) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Director of OMB, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security acting through the Director of CISA, and the Administrator of General Services acting through FedRAMP, shall develop a Federal cloud-security strategy and provide guidance to agencies accordingly. Such guidance shall seek to ensure that risks to the FCEB from using cloud-based services are broadly understood and effectively addressed, and that FCEB Agencies move closer to Zero Trust Architecture.”

My question is, if you want better cybersecurity, and more diversity and inclusion, why not take the time to pare these orders down to tight, clear prose?

I suspect the detailed, legalistic tone is caused by the prescriptive approach to the policy itself, however hidden in the thicket it might be. And the approach is wrong. In its prescriptiveness, it presupposes that the only way to make sure agencies carry out policy is by leaving out no detail, or any room for discretion. Clearly committees spent months putting these documents together, and they worried about possible wiggle room. The documents read like contracts.

Mind you, I’m not talking about the aims or policies of the EOs, which are up to the administration. I’m simply asking, why talk to agencies like this?