Federal Agency Websites Still Failing to Provide Citizens with Clear Information

Evelyn Wolf
2 min read
plain language - government documents
VisibleThread 2017 US Government Index finds improving web clarity scores in federal agency website content, but still failing to meet recommended readability levels.

Baltimore, MD, May 10, 2017 – VisibleThread, today announced findings from its website clarity review of 30 US Federal Agencies. Following the introduction of the Plain Writing Act 2010, VisibleThread first published this review in 2011 and then again in 2016. The 2017 analysis is a follow-up and comparison of federal agency websites indexed in 2016.

The agencies with the overall best scores were: The National Archives, Centers for Disease Control and The Community Oriented Policing Service. To see the full list of agencies across each clarity category, view the report here.

The analysis measured up to 100 pages on each website, across these 4 dimensions:

  • Readability: How readable is the content?
  • Passive Language vs Active Language. What proportion of sentences are passive?
  • Long Sentences: What proportion of all sentences are too long?
  • Word Complexity Density: Proportion of complex words relative to total word count.

Why is this report relevant?

Seven years ago, the passage of the Plain Writing Act 2010 mandated clear communications in materials for U.S. citizens. Under the Act, federal agencies are required to use writing that is concise, clear and appropriate for the audience. At a minimum, readers with a high school level of education should be able to understand the content that is written on government websites.

“Clear communication saves agencies time and money, which is a win for both government and taxpayer,” said Fergal McGovern, CEO, VisibleThread. “In a time when policy favors fiscal conservatism, a focus on plain language helps agencies manage change and achieve greater compliance, when they typically have fewer resources.”

Complex language can negatively impact communication with the public.  The result is often unforeseen and unnecessary costs. VisibleThread’s report demonstrates examples of language that may have this unintended effect, similar to the following:

“In accordance with 49 U.S.C. 24405(a)(7), a person or entity is ineligible to receive any contract or subcontract made with XYZ grant funds if a court or department, agency, or instrumentality of the Government decides the person intentionally – (A) affixed a “Made in America” label, or a label with an inscription having the same meaning, to goods sold in or shipped to the United States that are used in a project to which this subsection applies but not produced in the United States; or (B) represented that goods described in subparagraph (A) of this paragraph were produced in the United States.”

Download the full report here:


About VisibleThread

VisibleThread’s solutions help organizations test & audit their written content for risk and content quality, with dramatically less cost. Customers include; Northrop Grumman, Intel, Accenture and Fannie Mae. Our software instantly finds brand compliance, poor readability and language risk issues within documents and entire websites. Customers produce better quality, more engaging content. Unlike consumer-grade analysis tools, VisibleThread processes hundreds of documents and web pages in minutes. Marketing, Sales and Risk/Contracts Teams in leading global organizations use VisibleThread.


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