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Some governments try getting to the point, shortly and simply

MINNEAPOLIS Hennepin County is launching a movement for shorter sentences. But this has nothing to do with the judicial system. And it's syntax, rather than sin taxes, that is getting special attention nowadays from county officials. A year after...

MINNEAPOLIS

Hennepin County is launching a movement for shorter sentences. But this has nothing to do with the judicial system.

And it's syntax, rather than sin taxes, that is getting special attention nowadays from county officials.

A year after the federal government pledged in law to communicate rules and regulations in "plain language," Hennepin is sharpening its red pencils, slashing through bloated verbiage and simplifying websites to make it easier for residents to understand what their county is doing.

"We don't want people to have a furrowed brow when they're reading something," said Carolyn Marinan, who heads the county's Public Affairs Department in charge of the effort. "People need to understand our business and what we're providing for them. They can't get lost in complication."

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Words have been chopped and websites stripped down in several topic areas most often consulted by the public, including the county budget, service centers, wellness and transportation. Every county website page has a "Plain Language" link at the bottom for public feedback.

Inside the Government Center, county employees now have a writing guide to help them boil down and focus reports and messages; it's been consulted more than 1,600 times in the last six months.

Writing classes are being offered to staffers, and specialized help is provided to departments to help them meet plain language standards.

'The writer's fault'

Since the 1980s, Minnesota law has required that state materials for job, health and human service benefits be written at a seventh-grade level. The state's Plain Language Contract Act, passed in 1981, mandates that consumer contracts are written "in a clear and coherent manner using words with common and everyday meanings."

But Hennepin County is thought to be one of the first counties in the country to develop a comprehensive program to tackle government jargon, along with Los Angeles County in California and Miami-Dade in Florida.

Annetta Cheek, a former Washington bureaucrat who chairs the nonprofit Center for Plain Language in northern Virginia, said clear communication is needed at every level of government.

"How can you have a democracy if the citizens don't understand what the government is saying to them?" she asked. "The communications style of any government in this country is abysmal."

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Cheek said that some people object that plain language is a "dumbing down" of communication. Some complain that it takes more time to write clearly. Many lawyers are twitchy about plain language because they say it lacks precision.

Wrong on all counts, she said. It may be harder to write clearly, she said, but it can be costly in terms of time and money if decisions are based on confusing documents.

"A lot of people will read a form to authorize a health procedure and they don't understand it, but they don't say anything because they're embarrassed," she said. "It's the writer's fault. Not the reader."

Cheek, who has a Ph.D in anthropology, wrote regulations for more than 20 years for the Department of the Interior and the Federal Aviation Administration. She was a pretty good writer, she said, but she was thunderstruck one day when shown a set of strikingly clear rules on offshore oil and gas drilling. "That got me interested immediately," she said.

Cheek formed a working group with other interested federal employees. In time they won support from President Bill Clinton, who issued a memo endorsing plain language, and Vice President Al Gore, who started the "No Gobbledygook Awards" to encourage clear writing.

New federal law

President Obama took it a step further, signing a bill last year to promote plain language in all federal documents. The law, which took effect last month and applies only to federal agencies, requires each department to appoint someone to oversee efforts and report periodically to Congress.

That inspired Hennepin County to launch its own plain language campaign, Marinan said. With the support of the County Board -- and at no additional cost to the county beyond staff time -- Public Affairs developed a program. The first steps were to train the staff and make sure new information is clear and concise; older materials will be rewritten as needed.

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So far it's hard to gauge progress, said Marinan, a former longtime Twin Cities TV reporter. But she said that several county departments using plain language have reported they're getting fewer questions about information and processes than before.

"We have a ways to go and we know there's room for improvement, but that's OK," she said. Short and to the point.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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