Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Write in Plain English: Legislative Recommendation #1


I earlier listed recommendations for the U.S. House's Feb. 2 conference on legislative transparency and accessibility.  These recommendations, to improve the human and machine accessibility of Federal legislation first require changes in the way that legislation is written, and second focus on the technology to support those changes.  Some of these changes will meet with more cultural resistance and be harder to implement.  This is probably the case with my first recommendation, to Write in Plain English, but I believe that Congress can make initial steps toward this goal right away.

By plain English, I mean writing clearly and consistently.  In the highly nuanced and technical areas that are addressed by much of our legislation, plain language will still include technical language.  And statutes will still require some expertise to understand and apply.  Legislation will still include ambiguity: in fact much legislative compromise is built on carefully crafted, ambiguous, language.  However, such ambiguity also carries heavy costs in decreased certainty, increased litigation costs and increased polarization.

As for implementation, there are already plain language initiatives that apply to Federal agencies and stylistic guidelines for how to write in plain language. Although Congress is clearly a different beast, lessons from these initiatives can apply to legislative drafting, as well.  The centralized Office of Legislative Council already plays a very large role in drafting laws and crafting legislative language, for which most offices are very grateful. Strong plain language guidelines can be incorporated into the existing OLC guidelines (pdf) and, especially when backed by intelligent automation, can eventually make drafting a bit more of a science and less of an art.  For example, to the basic stylistic guidelines, we can add a bit of technology: expand the vocabulary that is explicitly defined, set standards for the categories and kinds of words and phrases that require definitions, and work to harmonize definitions, to the extent possible, going forward.

Another single, but very powerful, stylistic change is to write all legislation as a full text replacement, at the section level, as is done in California and some other state legislative systems.  I will discuss this more in my next post.