Most of the reporters who filed into the...

WASHINGTON --

July 01, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Most of the reporters who filed into the Roosevelt Room of the White House yesterday were eager to hear the administration's take on why a U.S. warplane fired at an Iraqi radar site. But there was Vice President Al Gore, standing beside a turkey.

The cartoon depiction of the animal was intended to symbolize Gore's recently announced mission to rid the federal bureaucracy of the "gobbledygook" that pollutes the pages of the government's regulatory codebooks.

And while Gore eventually got to questions about the diplomatic tension in the Persian Gulf, he spent the bulk of his time on the event's advertised purpose: to praise the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which Gore says has led the pack in putting regulations in plain English, and is the winner of his inaugural monthly Plain Language Award.

"The principles of plain language," the vice president proclaimed, "are, of course, plain. Short is better than long, active is better than passive, everyday terms are better than technical terms, and you can use pronouns."

Proudly accepting the award, OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said: "We may never be an agency that's easy to love, but we can be an agency that's easy to understand."

As it happens, the task of making government and legal documents simple has become, well, complex.

Gore tried to make it plain. Showing off his theatrical savvy, he demonstrated the benefits of OSHA's revision of a rule for the workplace handling of dip tanks -- canisters used to contain dangerous toxic and flammable substances.

In the dry monotone he often uses to mock his own image for wooden oratory, Gore read aloud from the old OSHA regulation: "This paragraph applies to all operations involving the immersion of materials in liquids, or in the vapors of such liquids, for the purpose of cleaning or altering the surface or adding to or imparting a finish thereto or changing the character of the materials and their subsequent removal from the liquid or vapor, draining, and drying."

Then, like an actor showing versatility at an audition, the vice president suddenly switched on his animated persona to narrate the new, crisper version: "This rule applies to operations using a dip tank containing any liquid other than water -- to clean an object, to coat an object, to alter the surface of an object, or to change the character of an object."

Seems easy enough, the naive observer would say. Bring on the next rule.

Not so fast. Some critics say the government lacks the resources and expertise to make its rules easier to understand. OSHA, for example, needed a year and a half to jump through the legal hoops and carry out the research necessary to revise the dip-tank rule.

"This is not merely turning a document over to an English professor and having him put it into clear language," explains Alan M. Siegel, chairman and CEO of a New York-based "strategic communications" company that specializes in simplifying documents and collects millions in fees for the largest of such projects.

The way Siegel tells it, it's hardly easy to turn turgid regulations into simple rules without losing the nuances of the original intent.

"True simplification and clarification grows out of a zero-based analysis," Siegel said, not sounding all that simple himself.

Some on Capitol Hill, in fact, question the wisdom of devoting federal time and money to Gore's initiative.

"Most of the rules are a lot more complicated than dip tanks," said Greg Visscher, an aide to a House subcommittee that involves OSHA. "They've been at it for three years, and they don't have a lot to show for it."

But OSHA's director of regulatory analysis, Marthe Kent, who received the shimmery glass trophy from Gore, is unmoved by skeptics, some of whom see an unwanted bureaucracy forming out of Gore's initiative. "It's not a new bureaucracy," Kent said. "It's making the old one work smarter."

Out of an agency of thousands, OSHA might point out, it has committed just 20 staff members to work toward meeting Gore's goal of simplifying the entire government codebook by Jan. 1, 2002.

After all, OSHA's codebook is only 1,500 pages.

Plain is a relative term

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the winner of Vice President Al Gore's first Plain Language Award for simplifying the language of federal rules. A sample:

BEFORE

(i) This paragraph applies to all operations involving the immersion of materials in liquids, or in the vapors of such liquids, for the purpose of cleaning or altering the surface or adding to or imparting a finish thereto or changing the character of the materials, and their subsequent removal from the liquid or vapor, draining, and drying. These operations include washing, electroplating, anodizing, pickling, quenching, dyeing, dipping, tanning, dressing, bleaching, degreasing, alkaline cleaning, stripping, rinsing, digesting, and other similar operations.

AFTER

(a) When does this rule apply? 1. This rule applies to operations using a dip tank containing any liquid other than water --

(i) To clean an object,

(ii) To coat an object,

(iii) To alter the surface of an object,

(iv) Or to change the character of an object.

2. This rule also applies to drying or draining an object after

dipping.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

D: OSHA bureaucrats cutting to the chase; Language: Gore applauds efforts to simplify rules. It's not easy, agency says.

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