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Census Bureau Compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010

The Census Bureau has long sought to improve communication with the public, dependent as we are on their cooperation in our censuses and surveys.

In September 2011, the agency set up the Plain Language Implementation Working Group, made up of representatives from various divisions, to carry out a business plan that focused on the strategic issues concerning language on our website. The issues deal with the difficulty the public has in understanding many of our terms, as well as problems stemming from unclear expressions in general. Part of the mission of this team is to oversee compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

The Team identified two related strategic issues:

  • Strategic Issue 1: Can we find specific ways to make technical terms understandable to customers?
  • Strategic Issue 2: Can we find, in general, a way to make the language on the website simpler and less confusing to customers? Can we create a "dissemination culture" where web content providers write more clearly?

The implementation plan discussed here is one of several dealing with communications issues at the Census Bureau designed to build on the innovative and successful communications plan developed to promote the 2010 Census. Much of the creativity used in promoting the census we want to bring to other parts of the web.

The Plain Language plan supports Objective 5.6 in the Census Bureau's Strategic Plan ("Meet the changing needs of our customers by enhancing data products, services, and dissemination"): it serves customers at all levels, especially the growing audience of casual or novice customers, encourages investment in human capital, and fosters cooperation across directorates. It also aligns with goals in the Communications Directorate's Strategic Plan.


Usability studies of the Census Bureau's website suggest that the public has difficulty understanding words used on the site. The Census Bureau, as a data collection organization committed to scientific methods, uses technical terms with precise, fixed definitions to label concepts like "race," "Hispanic origin," "group quarters," and "establishment" that are unclear to the public. Even a common term like "family" has a technical definition.

Addressing the Strategic Issues

During the summer of 2011, we developed a business case to analyze the strategic issues and to propose solutions. The Plain Writing Act gave us further incentive to action. As a result, we developed the following:

  • Short-term plans to fix the problems identified in the business case. It included upgrading an index of glossaries on the website, enhancing the glossary content in our FAQ site, and developing a state-of-the-art glossary tool prominently accessible on the Census Bureau's home page.
  • Long-term plans to help the Census Bureau develop a "dissemination culture" where there is a strong emphasis on clearer communication with the public. The focus is in particular on communication via the web. 
    • Included in these plans is additional training for our staff customized to fit the challenges they face in translating technical prose into simpler language.
    • We also are setting up an Intranet site to provide our staff with many tools to sharpen and test their language tools.
    • It is important to note that this plan is one of several designed to enhance our communication through data visualization, web tools and easier navigation. Our new home page (in which clear, plain communication was a major concern) is evidence of the Census Bureau's commitment in this regard.
    • We are conducting usability studies to assess our progress.

We Value Your Feedback

In compliance with the Plain Writing Act, we will post periodic update reports documenting our progress in meeting and exceeding the requirements of the act.

Send comments to cnmp.plain.language@census.gov.

Page Last Revised - December 16, 2021
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