State workers struggle to be jargon-free

SALEM — A 2007 law requiring Oregon state workers to write in plain language hasn't been so simple.

The Department of Consumer and Business Services says 750 employees have been trained, dozens of documents have been rewritten, and hundreds of websites have been edited for clarity.

But budget cuts slashed most of the training planned to help bureaucrats use plain language, and workers are still struggling to communicate with the public using everyday words and short sentences.

Ann Snyder, spokeswoman for the Oregon Youth Authority, has helped several agencies adopt plain language standards.

"This is something that, when done correctly, really makes government better," she said. "You spend less time working with people who are confused by a form or a process."

It's not always easy. Take the word "recidivism," for example.

"One obvious word that's part of our job is recidivism," Snyder said. "That just means, to oversimplify it, recommit a crime." After a second's thought, she added, "Recommit is even a long word."

"We try to say things like 'youths who stay crime-free" rather than the 'rate of recidivism,'" she said. "We understand the word recidivism, but we want the youth to understand that we want them to remain crime-free."

Almost every agency has a similar problem. Each has its own jargon that serves as helpful shorthand when communicating with co-workers. It's easy to forget that someone else might want to understand what's being said.

"You try to do the best you can with the tools you have to work with," said Linda Russell, executive director of the Oregon Board of Medical Imaging. "You do spend a fair amount of time on it, doing it, trying to make sure you are simplifying things, because it is important. It's not a bad thing. It's good. It's just not easily done."

Russell's small agency runs all of its public communications through a word processing database that judges documents on readability.

Even the agency's name is a nod toward simplification. It recently changed from its old moniker, the Board of Radiologic Technology, as part of the effort to make things more understandable. The board regulates medical imaging procedures such as X-rays, MRIs and CT scans, as well as nuclear medicine used to treat cancer and other diseases.

"With our name change, the language the board used for the new Oregon Administrative Rules was simplified so everyone could understand it, even if you weren't licensed in that modality," Russell said.


Russell laughed at her use of the unplain-language term, then tried to figure out an alternative.

"Modality is a modality," she said. "I could say another medical imaging area of practice. I could describe it like that. But then many people don't know what medical imaging means."

Share This Story