Gobbledygook Award

Related Resources:

Photo and Summary

6/1/98 Memorandum on Plain English in Government Writing

Plain Language Action Network

Federal Communicators Network and Plain Language Action Network Workshop Internet Resources

OSHA's Marthe Kent Gets the First Plain Language Award

Vice President Gore Presents Second Plain Language Award


Wednesday, August 5, 1998

I am delighted to be here today to name the second recipient of our Plain Language Awards -- our campaign to reinvent government by our putting our communications into everyday language that people understand.

In June, I was proud to announce that President Clinton had directed all federal agencies to begin writing in plain language to the American people. We announced that we would present one award each month to government employees who turn particularly bad examples of government language into good language. We call them the "No Gobbledygook Awards." And that explains why I am standing next to a poster with a giant turkey on it today.

When President Kennedy occupied the office just a few feet from here, he had a standing rule: never use a word with three syllables if you can use a word that has two. The principles of plain language are just as plain: short is better than long; active is better than passive; everyday terms are better than technical terms. And the sky will not fall if you use a pronoun.

As it stands today, many federal regulations don't even pass the Yogi Berra test. As many of you know, Yogi Berra is famous for his tortured use of the English language. When Yogi Berra said "when you come to a fork in the road, you should take it" . . . when he advised a friend that "you should always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours" . . . when he instructed his Yankee teammates to "pair up in threes"-- he may as well have been writing an old federal rule. We need to make sure that we say what we mean, and mean what we say.

This isn't just about good writing -- it's about good government, and good government service. If we are going to pass laws that help meet the challenges this nation faces, people have to understand what those laws mean. Plain speaking helps create understanding, and understanding helps create trust. And trust -- especially trust in the promise of self-government -- is essential to solving the common problems we face.

Last month, I was proud to present our first No Gobbledygook Award to Marthe Kent and the people at OSHA, for rewriting some of the federal health regulations that help save people's lives. Today, I am proud to present the second "NO GOBBLEDYGOOK" plain language award to Chris Fontecchio and Richard Hoops of the Bureau of Land Management. Let me ask them to come forward . . . [Present award].

Let me tell you why we are honoring them here today. Chris Fontecchio has been with the Bureau for two years and is an analyst with BLM's Regulatory Affairs Group here in Washington. Rich Hoops is a Program Coordinator out of the Nevada State Office in Reno. This is the first time they have met in person. Over the past three months, they have worked together in cyberspace to rewrite a rule that helps protect our public lands. It is called BLM Regulation 3264.2-1. For those of you who can't immediately bring the details of 3264.2-1 to mind, it is about protecting a clean and renewable source of energy called geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy is formed by the heat of the earth's core and gathers as pockets of steam below the earth's surface. In order to convert it to electricity, we have to drill deeply into the earth's core. These regulations help us strike the proper balance between how we drill for that energy and how we protect the land -- especially in places like California, Oregon, and Nevada, where this drilling is most prevalent. Unfortunately, the old regulations didn't create anything but confusion.

Here's how this turkey reads: "A permit to construct and operate an individual production well facility of not more than 10-megawatt net capacity or heat energy equivalent, including all related on-lease facilities, must be obtained from the authorized officer prior to commencing surface distributing activities related to the construction and operation of each such facility. The application for a permit in this respect shall be filed in triplicate with the authorized officer and must state the location of the principal facility and all related sites by distance in meters and direction from the nearest section or tract lines, as shown on the official plat of survey or protracted surveys, and the elevation of the ground level at these sites. The application must be accompanied by a proposed plan of utilization, as required by Section 3262.4-1 of this title."

I know what you're thinking: after reading this page-turner, I could hardly wait to get to Section 3262.4-1. But I couldn't: because this goes on for another 11 paragraphs and 34 lines.

The award-winning fix reads: "If you want to use federal land to produce geothermal power, you have to get a site license and construction permit before you even start preparing the site. Send a plan to BLM that shows what you want to do and write up a proposed site license agreement that you think is fair and reasonable. BLM will review it and decide whether or not to give you a permit and license to proceed with work on the site. Until and unless they do, don't even think about it." It's not just cleaner, it also reduces the number of regulations by a third.

And there's an important point to this revision. People may not always agree with every decision that is made by the federal government. But even when the government is telling people "no," it should do so in a clear, simple, unambiguous way, so that there is no confusion for anyone involved. If you ask Chris Fontecchio about this change, he'll say, "Every time we re-wrote this rule, I was amazed at how much plainer we could make it." That is the same challenge we issue to all government employees today.

Yogi Berra also once said, "the future isn't what it used to be." If we can continue to simplify the words we use to communicate in government, the future won't be what it used to be -- it will be clearer, more concise, and more informative than ever before. By examining our phrases, we will also be forced to re-examine the original purpose of our rules and regulations. By doing that, we will reinvent government itself. That was the promise when President Clinton and I took office in 1993 -- and with your help, we will get there. Thank you.

Back To The NPR Home Page Search the NPR Site NPR Initiatives Site Index Calendar Comments Awards Links to Other Reinvention Web Sites Reinvention Tools Frequently Asked Questions NPR Speeches NPR News Releases Navigation Bar For NPR site