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Plain Language Tips for Government Agencies


Does your gov­ern­ment agency receive calls and emails from peo­ple that can’t nav­i­gate your web­site? This is a sign that your con­tent is not writ­ten in plain lan­guage, and that the pub­lic isn’t able to find or under­stand the infor­ma­tion on your website.

Illustration of two heads talking to each other connected by a thread

The Plain Writing Act along with a new Executive Order requires federal agencies to use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

At Anthro-Tech, we use the guidance from combined with a Human-Centered Design (HCD) approach to help our clients achieve their plain language goals. Our team focuses on the three pillars of plain language:

  1. Easy for people to find what they need
  2. Easy to understand
  3. Tells people what to do

Why Use Plain Language?

Writing in plain language saves people time, reduces administrative costs, and makes life easier. The benefits for government agencies include:

  • Better informed citizens
  • Builds trust and transparency with the public
  • Saves taxpayer money by reducing administrative burdens and redundancies
  • Government services and products become more effective and efficient

The Three Pillars of Plain Language: A Guide for Government Agencies

#1 Write Content That Makes it Easy For People to Find What They Need

Write your content in a way that is purposeful and designed for the user.

Organize The Information

  • Start with a topic sentence that states your purpose
  • Put important information first

Design For Reading

Let's Look at an Example

We must receive your payment electronically on or before the 10th day of the following month. If you do not submit your payment electronically, we must receive your payment on or before the 20th day of the following the month.

Plain Talk

Image table plain language

For example, if you pay online for the month of April, we must receive your payment by May 20th.

Rather than burying important due dates in a long paragraph, the “Plain Talk” version uses a visual table with the two payment options in the left column, and their respective due dates in the right column. It also uses simplified terms such as “online” and “check” which are more commonly used terms than “electronically.” There is also an example using names of months, rather than something that could be easily misunderstood, like “the following.” This makes it easy for readers to navigate to the information that’s important to them.

#2 Write Content That is Easy to Understand

Save your users’ time and frustration by clearly communicating information. When writing in plain language, fewer users will need to contact your agency for clarification.

Write For Your Audience

  • Understand who your audience is by conducting researchsuch as interviews or surveys
  • Use language your audience will comprehend/understand/feel comfortable with

Be Concise

Choose Your Words Carefully

  • Avoid industry jargon
  • Spell out abbreviations the first time
  • Use the same terms consistently

Let's Look at an Example:

“The application shall be submitted to the agency by the applicant on or before the first of July.”

Plain Talk
“We must receive your application by July 1st.”

Rather than referring to the audience as “the applicant,” and the organization as “the agency,” the after example uses “you” and “we,” respectively. This helps users quickly understand who, exactly, this piece of writing is talking about. Additionally, using active voice rather than passive voice places important information in a logical order, which makes it easier for audiences to understand what they need to do the first time they read the sentence.

Key Takeaway

Government agencies not only have a legal obligation to deliver content citizens can understand, but a moral one, as well. Writing in plain language so that people can find what they need, understand what they find, and use it to fit their needs will build trust between the people and your government agency.