Open Government at the National Archives

2021 Plain Writing Report

(This report was submitted April 2022)

Our Commitment

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is committed to improving our service to the public by using plain language in all our communications—internal as well as external. We use plain language in all new or revised communications about:

  • any of our services and benefits,
  • obtaining any of our benefits or services, or
  • 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.

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

Senior Official for Plain Writing

NARA's Senior Official for Plain Writing is Maria Carosa Stanwich, Chief of Staff.

Long-Term Ongoing Plain Writing Actions

In 2021, as closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic continued, plain writing remained critical to our engagement with the public and NARA staff. As most NARA employees continued to telework, clear written communication was essential to keeping the workforce informed and connected. When facilities reopened or closed, we communicated those changes clearly so that both our staff and the public could fully understand the developments and take the appropriate action.

Plain Language Reviews for Training Units

In 2021, NARA’s Learning and Development staff reworked its processes to add a plain language review for any training units released to large audiences at the agency. NARA’s editorial staff review training modules for plain language and adherence to the NARA Writing Style Guide. NARA’s Supervisor’s Handbook also went through a revision and plain language review.

Our Communications and Marketing Division/Editorial Staff

The Communications and Marketing Division staff edits communications destined for both internal and external audiences. A plain writing review is built into the publication process for all official internal communications. The team also reviews agency-wide notices, email communications, flagship social media posts, press releases, and external communications for plain language and adherence to the NARA Writing Style Guide.

  • Internal communications cover all official announcements to all staff and include email announcements and information, official NARA Notices (242 in FY 2021), articles and features for Declarations (our online internal news outlet), slide presentations for All Hands meetings, and training materials for all staff. All stories for Declarations and other internal communications are reviewed by multiple writer-editors before publication.
  • External communications include press releases, news articles, educational materials, blog posts, social media posts, exhibit scripts, annual reports, and information on the agency’s website. These products come from units across the agency.

NARA Style Guide

The NARA Writing Style Guide is an important tool for NARA writers to produce writing that conveys clear thought. In 2021, editorial staff worked with the Archivist’s Task Force on Racism to further update the guide, which covers writing in plain language as well as matters of style, grammar, and usage.

Examples of Select NARA Units’ Efforts to Improve Writing

Program areas within NARA take separate approaches to complying with the plain writing directive, depending on their role at the agency. Here are a few examples:

  • The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum completely revised its website with the end user in mind, making each page clearer, more concise, and easier to read. The library also revised the initial response sent to FOIA researchers, eliminating unnecessary information and making the communication more concise and easier to read.
  • The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum developed macro-enabled templates using plain language for standardized reference responses. In addition, a new digital exhibit on the library’s website went through multiple rounds of editing from at least four staff members to produce concise, easily understood, and engaging exhibit text.
  • The Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum added a section for artifact collections to their website, using clear, direct language to describe materials and following the uniform site format (ADA-compliant text and color choices) to make it easy for visitors to read and understand. All draft social media posts are reviewed in multiple stages to ensure they are clear and concise.
  • The Office of General Counsel revised the main Freedom of Information Act page. The new page makes clearer the distinction between the two types of records in NARA’s custody and gives more prominence to how to make a FOIA request.

Our Web Services

Our Web 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, user testing, A/B testing, metrics analysis, competitive analysis, customer journey mapping, user personas, and heatmap usage data. (View real-time Metrics)

Design and Development — Redesigns (including content audits and content strategy), migration to the Drupal content management system, and other improvements that organize content and utilize best practices for information architecture based on top tasks.

Prototyping and User Testing — Testing concepts, designs, and prototypes with users to meet their needs in iterative fashion, tweaking web products as testing informs final designs and outcome.

Training — The Web Branch offered the classes listed below, targeted for web content managers across the agency who create and edit content on the agency’s flagship website, These classes were attended remotely January through August with a total of 216 attendees in 2021.

Web Services Training Classes Number of Attendees
Alternative Text for Images on the Web 43
Introduction to Web Editing Using Drupal for     62
Image Guidelines for Drupal 41
UX & UI Design with U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) 35
Writing for the Web 35

Plain Language Training 

NARA’s online training tools, Learning Management System and SkillSoft, offer several plain language classes. Staff also attend external classes such as the Plain Language Basics: Online Workshop” offered by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).

See our Examples page to see how we're implementing plain language.