Open Government at the National Archives

2017 Plain Language Compliance Report

Our Commitment

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), we are committed to improving our service to the public by using plain language in all our communications. We are using plain language in all new or revised communications about:

  • any of our services and benefits
  • obtaining any of our benefits or services
  • complying with a NARA requirement

Our commitment to the goals of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 is part of our target mission of providing public access to Federal Government records in our custody.  These records are the bedrock of our democracy. They document our rights and entitlements as citizens. They allow us to hold our government officials accountable for their actions. And they serve as firsthand witnesses to the important events of our national experience. 

We actively promote access to these records through a wide range of activities. By inviting the public to transcribe handwritten documents through crowdsourcing, we open up those documents to millions more, now and in the future. Through online and on-site workshops, tutorials, and lectures, we provide context to the records that will allow researchers to make further discoveries. And by promoting better records management in agencies, before the records even get to the National Archives, we ensure the documentation of our Government’s work will endure for generations to come.

As the Plain Writing Act promotes “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” NARA wants to ensure that the public can understand and use its own Federal records.  Learn more about our Plain Writing activities.

Our Senior Official for Plain Writing

The NARA Senior Official for plain writing is Maria Carosa Stanwich, Chief of Staff.

Long-Term Ongoing Plain Writing Actions in 2017

In 2017, plain writing at the National Archives continued to receive greater and heightened attention by management and staff as more communication—for both internal and external audiences—undergoes plain writing reviews at multiple levels by editors and writers with the necessary background and experience. In some cases, a particular communication might get more than one round of reviews. As a result, plain writing has become more a part of the communications process at NARA than it has been before.

Plain Language Tips for Staff

We promote plain writing through Plain Language Tips posted on our internal website, NARA@work.  We’ve also posted a sample of these tips on our Plain Writing page. Subjects include:

Actions by NARA Units to Improve Writing

Program areas within NARA take separate approaches to complying with the plain writing directive, depending on their role at the agency.

Declarations, our in-house online newsletter, is written in plain language and frequently carries articles about the use of plain language. Articles that appear in Declarations undergo a multilayered editorial review for accuracy, clarity, readability, brevity, and completeness before they are published for the staff.

For our museum areas, which host more than 1 million visitors annually, we write and edit exhibit text to be brief and engaging. Item labels promote clarity, brevity, and simplified language.

  • Agency Services 
    Agency Services provides services and resources for other government agencies, such as records management and records storage.  To operate more efficiently, Agency Services in 2017 conducted multi-level reviews for various types of communications, some of which are prepared by subject-matter experts, then reviewed by persons trained in the use of plain language.
  • Center for Legislative Archives
    The Center, which preserves the records of Congress, revamped “The Legislative Race” board game, one of the tools used to educate audiences about how Congress works. The initial board game and instructions were too complex and difficult to understand, so the staff extensively revised the game and instructions to enable students to more easily understand the legislative process.
  • National Personnel Records Center
    After paying a private firm for 15 years for a customer service survey, the NPRC decided to conduct it itself, using plain language and surveying all customers, not just a statistical sample. More than 1 million customers a year are now surveyed about NPRC’s customer service at an annual savings of $35,000. We thoroughly review all our policy directives and guidance for currency, appropriateness, and the use of plain language so they are easily understood.
  • Research Services
    Research Services includes 12 field offices around the country in addition to its operations in Washington, DC, and College Park, Maryland. Research Services communications teams at different levels track internal and external communications to ensure that they are written in plain language that everyone, regardless of their level of expertise, can understand. Research Services content contributors are now required to take plain writing training. As of 2017, this requirement is also in the new Archivist Development Program for all new archivists in the 1420 job series in Research Services.
  • Presidential Libraries
    • The George W. Bush Library in Dallas, Texas, with approximately 25,000 visitors to its website each month, updated paragraphs to one-idea, shortened sentences following plain language guidelines, and revised tables and headings to make everything clearer.
    • The Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, now has two people, instead of one, proofread communications. The library also submits its web pages to NARA editors for review before publishing them.
    • At the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, management reviews exhibit scripts to ensure they follow plain writing guidelines. A recent exhibit review included reducing the amount of text to allow room for more images to improve the visitor experience. At monthly web content meetings, the use of plain language in web postings is discussed.

Plain Language Training Classes

NARA’s online training tools, Learning Management System and SkillSoft, offer several plain language classes, including:

  • Introductory Course on Plain Language
  • Toolkit: Plain Writing
  • Toolkit: Robust Language
  • The Plain Writing Act

Thirty-three staff at the George W. Bush Library completed the NARA Learning Center’s Introductory Course on Plain Language class.

Also, editors from the Employee Communications and Editorial Services staff sometimes teach classes or webinars on plain language issues. In 2017, the editors gave a one-hour class with an overview of plain language and the NARA Style Guide to 14 records management staff in Agency Services who attended in person in College Park, MD, or by webinar.

Plain Language Represented in Staff Performance Plans

Communication is one of the core competencies for all supervisors at NARA. Effective use of plain language is central to achieving that competency, and we continue to develop criteria to determine how well supervisors communicate with their staff.

Supervisors may include a plain language requirement in performance plans. This may include taking a course or workshop in plain writing. Our Editorial Services staff—experienced editors and writers—stands ready to assist any staff member who wants expert help in improving his or her writing skills.

Our Employee Communications and Editorial Services Staff

Our Employee Communications and Editorial Services staff performs multiple and extensive plain writing reviews of NARA Notices, press releases, management communications, and other text submitted to the staff for review. These reviews include copy editing, substantive editing, and, when necessary, reorganization of the material for better readability and understanding.

Three before-and-after examples of this service editing are available via the links below:

Proposal for an Open Government Intern

BEFORE
Since the National Archives’ creation, our mission has been to provide access to the Nation’s permanent records to the public. The National Archives accomplishes this mission in several ways, including providing hands-on help to researchers, creating informative and engaging events and exhibits, and developing tools that ensure records will not be lost because we no longer use the same kinds of technologies to share and access information. In addition to providing access to records that are historically valuable, the National Archives plays an important role in setting record-keeping policy across the government, overseeing declassification efforts, and finding strategies to improve compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

AFTER
Since the creation of the agency, the National Archives’ mission is to provide public access to the nation’s permanent records. The National Archives accomplishes this mission in several ways, including providing hands-on help to researchers, creating informative and engaging events and exhibits, and developing tools to ensure access to records even after the originating technology has become obsolete. In addition to providing access to historically valuable records, the National Archives plays an important role in setting recordkeeping policy across the government, overseeing declassification efforts, and finding strategies to improve compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

January 2017 Calendar of Events

BEFORE

Tuesday, January 17, at noon
William G. McGowan Theater
Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission
In this debut book from one of America’s most influential political journalists, Bret Baier casts the three days between Dwight Eisenhower’s prophetic “farewell address” on the evening of January 17, 1961, and his successor John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on the afternoon of January 20 as the final mission of one of modern America’s greatest leaders.  A book signing follows the program.

AFTER

Tuesday, January 17, at noon
Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission
William G. McGowan Theater and YouTube
In his debut book, political journalist Bret Baier looks at the three days between Dwight Eisenhower’s prophetic "farewell address" on the evening of January 17, 1961, and his successor John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on the afternoon of January 20. A book signing follows the program.  

March 2017 Calendar of Events

BEFORE

DATE TBD at 7 p.m.
William G. McGowan Theater
First Annual McGowan Forum on Ethics in Leadership
Ethics in Journalism: The Business of Fake News (working title)
Presented in partnership with the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund Fellows Program, the Ethics in Leadership Forum will present critical conversations about the moral decisions leaders face at the intersection of business and government. In this inaugural Forum, a distinguished panel will explore such timely topics as, how misinformation affect democracy, why is it so difficult to differentiate between “real” and “fake” news, and what are ethical responsibilities of journalists, of government, and of businesses who sell advertising on fake news sites.

AFTER

Wednesday, March 29, at 7 p.m.
William G. McGowan Theater & YouTube
First Annual McGowan Forum on Ethics in Leadership
Ethics in Journalism
The Ethics in Leadership Forum will present critical conversations about the moral decisions leaders face at the intersection of business and government. This inaugural forum will explore how misinformation affects democracy, and the ethical responsibilities of journalists, government, and businesses. Panelists include Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Amy Hollyfield of PolitiFact; and Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University. This program is made possible in part by the National Archives Foundation with the generous support of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund.

Plain writing is only one step in the communications process, and often how a message is displayed is as important as the language used. Our designers add dimension to our editorial services’ products by bringing their talents in layout and design to specific projects when asked. Some examples of the benefits of layout and design are shown in these examples:

NARA Style Guide

The NARA Style Guideis an important tool for NARA writers to produce writing that conveys clear thought. It establishes agency standards of punctuation, word usage, and grammar that answer writers’ most common questions and aims to promote clear and effective writing throughout the agency. In FY 2018 editorial staff members are working on making the guide easier to use, offering more real-world examples and updating technology-related terms.

Our Web Services

Our Web and Social Media Branch follows the 18F methodologies and U.S. Web Design Standards and offers the following support and services to NARA staff to ensure excellent usability and compliance with the Plain Writing Act and related guidance:

  • User Experience Research — Surveys, user interviews, metrics analysis, customer journey mapping, user personas
  • Design and Development — Redesigns (including content audits and content strategy), migration to the Drupal content management system, and other improvements that organize content based on top tasks
  • Prototyping and User Testing — Testing concepts, designs, and prototypes with users to meet their needs
  • Training — Writing for the web, and more

We use the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Survey on Archives.gov to help staff create “an effective and easy website for our users.” The survey includes three questions on plain language:

  • Please rate the thoroughness of the information on this site.
  • Please rate how understandable this site’s information is.
  • Please rate how well the site’s information answers your questions.

We review the survey each month. The current Archives.gov Content Satisfaction score is 80% (Source: January 2017–December 2017 Content Satisfaction average score).  View real-time Archives.gov Metrics

Visitors to Archives.gov, the National Archives Catalog, search, and History Hub are presented with a 1–10 scale and asked: “What is your overall satisfaction with this site?” In this quarter, the average rating by visitors who participated in the survey was 7.1. This score is monitored to determine how well visitors are able to understand the content and accomplish their tasks.

Tools for Accessing Our Records

We encourage our audiences to become active partners in making historical documents available today and for the future.

  • The Web and Social Media Branch worked with staff in other NARA offices to create a set of user personas to establish a more robust, and data informed, understanding of the individuals who engage with NARA. Existing data sets (e.g., Google Analytics, Foresee Customer Satisfaction Survey, social media metrics) were used to create personas and user stories for use across the agency. The personas and user stories represent the following key audiences: veteran, genealogist, researcher, educator, history enthusiast, museum visitor, records manager, and curious nerd, and guide content and digital interfaces development.  
  • The new portal for Special Access and FOIA provides straightforward instructions on how to request records under FOIA, such as 9/11 FAA records and digitized FBI files and simplifies navigation to thousands of records. We developed two new finding aids using tables, bulleted lists, and helpful headings to help customers use the portal.
  • NARA staff collaborated on a portal page to highlight NARA’s records and other content relating to the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. This topic-oriented, user-focused portal follows the plain writing web standards, including writing for the audience, logically organizing the information, adding useful headings, highlighting important concepts, and presenting visuals.

Training the Trainers

No trainers were trained this year.

Teaching Civics

Our public programs put government records in historical and current context.

Dozens of free programs are presented each month in the William G. McGowan Theater in Washington, DC. Some of the programs in 2017 focused on these topics:

  • Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission
  • Harriet Tubman: A Woman of Courage and Vision
  • The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America
  • JFK: A Vision for America
  • National Conversation on Rights and Justice: Building a More Perfect Union
  • Frederick Douglass: The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro
  • Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary
  • Women and the Supreme Court
  • 35th Anniversary of The Wall
  • An Evening with the Mount Rushmore Presidents

We sponsor special programs on using government records in genealogical research. Topics in 2017 included:

  • 2017 Virtual Genealogy Fair - During the live event, we had approximately 2,000 views from 42 countries 
  • Accidental Genealogy (two, 1-hour presentations) - A description of valuable information accidentally found in our records. A two-part series.
  • “Help! I’m Stuck” Genealogy Consultation (provided eight times in 2017)
  • “Death Records from the Numerical Identification System” for Genealogical Research
  • African American Soldiers in the Great War
  • Oh, The Stories They Tell: Chinese Exclusion Acts Case Files at the National Archives & Records Administration
  • National Archives ​History Hub - A crowdsourcing platform for American history managed by the National Archives for researchers, citizen historians, archival professionals, and open government advocates.
  • World War II and the First Motion Picture Unit Films
  • WWII Military Unit Photographs - Expert tips and examples of how to effectively research World War II military photographs.
Top