The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is one of the longest-standing champions for great content and user experience in government. Since the 90s, this incredible community has shepherded the adoption of plain language in federal regulations and communications with the public. Last year, we were honored to partner with them to update and redesign plainlanguage.gov.
As a volunteer-run organization, their old site was trapped in a legacy system that was hard for them to access and maintain. After an initial pitch, we were able to secure an incremental investment from the Technology Transformation Services’ 10x program, which supports experiments and early-stage investigations. We set out to explore how DigitalGov and TTS can support government-wide communities of practice. A small team from 18F worked closely with DigitalGov and PLAIN to redesign plainlanguage.gov, making it more modern and usable. We used existing tools including Federalist and the U.S. Web Design System to help complete the project in less than six months and make it easier to maintain over the long run.
Recently, we talked with Katherine Spivey, co-chair of PLAIN and coordinator of the plain language program at GSA, and Miriam Vincent, PLAIN’s web manager and an attorney at the Office of the Federal Register, about the redesign of plainlanguage.gov and how volunteers can get involved.
Before we talk about the new plainlanguage.gov, can you tell us a little bit about PLAIN, and what you do on a daily basis?
Katherine Spivey: We communicate the importance of plain language, how it can work, and how we do things. On a day-to-day basis, we respond to emails that are sometimes outside of what we do, and other times, folks are looking for resources or requesting training. We also maintain the plain language community and are working on getting more volunteers.
Miriam Vincent: We serve as a resource, and our volunteers are a resource, just as the website is. Our mission is to provide resources to agencies so they can use and understand plain language, so that’s what we try to do. We want to give agencies and individuals within agencies the information they need to change minds and make things clearer.
What’s it like to be a four-person volunteer team running a government-wide resource?
Katherine: Overwhelming! [Laughs.] What is surprising to me is the number of states, cities, and counties that come to us and say, “Can we join — can you come and teach us?” And the answer is no, but it’s interesting that that’s one of the needs. If there were seven of us, we might be able to do something there.
How can people get more involved if they’re interested in volunteering?
Katherine: What I would recommend is first joining the community. There are a number of open volunteer positions, and it’s true that you’d have to be a fed. We’re especially looking for community managers — people who make it a conscious activity to feed discussion questions to the list, post things from other lists, or ask for guidance.
Miriam: The other thing that we’d like to say is that it’s not just volunteers for something that we’re already doing. If somebody has an idea and wants to volunteer to start a new program or project, we’re more than happy to entertain suggestions for things we haven’t thought of or had the ability to do. Get involved with the list, and then send us an email and let us know who you are and what you’d like to do as a volunteer.
For folks who are less familiar, can you talk about a time that plain language has changed how an agency works or thinks about its work?
Katherine: I’m thinking about a recent thing where our internal IT department [at the General Services Administration] said, “We’re sending out these emails but they are confusing people.” [I asked:] Can you send this to people that it actually affects? Sometimes, just getting that kind of feedback is useful.
Miriam and I went up to the Office of Minority Health, and said: “You’re communicating with an audience that is very busy and they don’t have time to wade through all of this stuff. What do you need folks to know?” It had never occurred to them to think about what they need to communicate. You really need to clarify who’s your audience and what they need to know.
One of the most valuable things we do is maintain that senior officials list. If someone from the VA says, “I think plain language training would be helpful for my team,” we tell them to talk to the plain language contact at their agency and folks are often surprised that they’re even there. Some of what we do is connecting. People say, “Oh, I didn’t know my agency was already doing this.” In a small sense, that’s a success story for us.
What would be different if more people in government used plain language?
Katherine: I generally ask people: who wants more emails or phone calls? People look at me like I am crazy, but if you write emails more clearly, you will get fewer phone calls. We can’t say you will save money, or the plain language department will send you a check. But we can say it will it will make your life easier, and it will make your users’ lives easier. People will trust you more. You’ll have more time to do other things.
Miriam: If you say or present something in such a way that you don’t have another 5 or 10 emails coming back asking what it means, that’s huge. We have studies that prove that you can save agencies time and money — and then have time to do other important work that was previously spent answering emails and phone calls.
Katherine: Or answering the same question, which really bugs people.
Miriam: Being able to avoid that repetition would be a huge success.
For me, a success would be that agencies, and the individuals that work within agencies, understand that customer service from an agency perspective is not about making people happy — it’s about making sure that people understand that they have all of the information they need and can understand and use it.
With the mindset in this country on customer service, which is different than some other countries (it’s a culture), where the customer is always right and you have to go the extra mile, that mindset has filtered its way into the federal government to some extent.
The pushback I get from agencies is that if we tell people “no” in plain language, they are just going to get upset. For me, success would be that it’s a given that if you tell someone no they are going to get upset, but if you tell them no in such a way that they understand it then everyone can focus on the reason why the answer was no. Once you understand that it’s a no, then you can move forward and look at next steps. If you don’t understand it’s a no, then you can’t move forward.
Plain language is crucial for customer service. But it’s not that customer service means you have to say yes or disguise the fact that you’re saying no. Good customer service from the federal government, at least from my perspective, is: it doesn’t matter what the answer is, we need to make sure that we are communicating the answer clearly, so people know what the next step is instead of focusing on the answer. We’re focused on making sure that the answer is clear and then dealing with the substance of the issue.
In terms of the redesign, what were some of the biggest issues you were facing going into the process?
Miriam: The biggest issue was being able to maintain the website so that it stayed relevant. Because we are not a physical thing, and we don’t have an infrastructure or budget, we have to rely on other agencies.
When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed to host the site, they took over paying for the domain name, database resources, server access, a lot of things, and they also had someone who was working there at a high level that was instrumental at forcing some support through, which was wonderful. Flash ahead 10-to-12 years later, and we don’t have anyone at the FAA that is a champion of the website, and no one at PLAIN is actually employed at FAA, and it effectively meant we were locked out of the site. So we weren’t able to get in and do any maintenance whatsoever. We couldn’t fix typos, or change anything that was out of date.
Did you learn anything along the way that surprised you?
Katherine: They were all pleasant surprises. You made this so easy for us. You really did a ton of work to make that happen. I think that I had forgotten how much stuff we have on the website, and I’d also forgotten what we were going to do with those before-and-after examples because people really like those.
Miriam: I wasn’t surprised at the amount of content, because I hand-coded the whole thing back in 2004. I’m aware of the amount of content that we had, and how buried it was. But trying to figure out prioritizing what to fix first, and to make sure it was all on the site when it went live was a bit more challenging.
As Katherine said, there are some things on the site that I use all the time, and other things people use all the time that I don’t look at. It’s easy to say, “That’s historical stuff, and we can’t get rid of it.” But if we get rid of it, it’s gone. And people actually use that. We’ll get questions from folks teaching a class, and they want to refer to the website. I’m thrilled that it’s useful. I’m happy that what we have is there. I think that the biggest takeaway is that we’re probably going to keep adding to the site and tweaking some of the content, but we’re probably not going to be removing a lot of things from the site because it continues to be useful to at least a subset of people. As long as it’s useful, it needs to stay up, even if we aren’t using it.
Katherine: That’s another useful reminder—that we’re not necessarily the audience.
Was there anything that you thought would be a problem that turned out to be not so bad?
Miriam: The fact that you did all of the conversion [to Markdown and HTML], was a huge gift to us and a great surprise. Until this website and this iteration of plainlanguage.gov, all of the coding and design, everything, was done by plain language volunteers. And I’ve basically been working on the website since 2000. So the fact that I didn’t actually have to do it — I just said, “Here, I’ll download it for you,” and you just did it — that was wonderful.
Katherine: That was fantastic. I haven’t dealt with domain names, and the fact that it happened pretty magically was super cool. It just happened! Hot diggity!
I know some people coming to Federalist are working groups without a budget. So whatever we can do to say how easy it was — I don’t want to lead people down the wrong path, but we certainly want to say what a great job you did since we are hearing nothing but compliments.
The site is full of fantastic resources, guidelines, and examples. Is there anything specific that you’re hoping people find and share with their colleagues?
Miriam: The quotations, and we haven’t updated them, so we don’t have a lot of recent quotes about plain language, but we do have a number of historical quotes. It’s interesting to look and see how much communicating clearly has been a part of our history. Relationships fall apart all of the time because people aren’t communicating with each other. It’s hard and even if you’re good at it, it’s hard! It’ll get easier, but it’s still going to be a fair amount of work, because communication is work.
Thank you so much for talking with us today! It was an honor to work with you on this project. Is there anything else you want to share with readers?
Miriam: There is so much on the site, and there has been so much. I’m familiar with the volume, but I’m not that familiar with the individual details of every page. If we’re missing something or you can’t find something that used to be on the site, please let us know.
We’re very grateful for how the website has come together, the look and feel, and all of the work you did to make it what it is.