Standardizing Quality in Government Policy Writing: Applying LSS in New Ways
Kat Wheeler, Program Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, Littleton, CO, USA
Keywords: Policy, Writing, Quality
Readers of government policy should expect it to be clear and concise, and effective in informing staff, leadership, and stakeholders of agency requirements. The Plain Writing Act of 2010, in fact, requires Federal agencies to use clear communication, so that intended users can, “find what they need and use what they find.” While there are plain language implementation guidelines, most people feel like “good” writing is hard to quantify and simply, “you know it when you see it.” With the assumption that quality is abstract and not measurable, changing the broad culture of government writing (and individual written documents) may seem difficult to affect. At one Federal organization, the Bureau of Reclamation, we recently completed an LSS project to improve the writing quality within our directives system, by creating standardization for writing quality where none previously existed. We reviewed 380 individual policy documents covering 58 programmatic and administrative subjects. To quantify expectations for clarity and conciseness, the project team relied on two metrics for quality: passive voice and readability. Passive voice is a style of writing that does not show who the actor is in a sentence and this metric served as a proxy for measuring clarity. Readability is a function of the lengths of words and sentences and this metric served as a proxy for measuring conciseness. The average Flesch-Kincaid readability score overall was 19.3 (versus our goal of 30 or higher) and passive voice was 20.4% of a document, on average (versus our goal of 10% or lower). The project team found several root causes for these problems, including lacking a definition and standard of quality for policy documents as they enter, move through, and complete the internal review and publication process. We implemented a three-part solution of 1) setting and publicizing standards for writing quality, 2) supplying tactical training to implement writing quality, and 3) helping executives set expectations for staff in moving through the writing process. Operational benefits resulting from this project include reducing staff time on repeated efforts, reducing the risk of employees misinterpreting or ignoring policy documents, and improving rapport between headquarters and field units. This project is a case study in the novel application of LSS tools and techniques in multiple ways – a project by a first-time black belt practitioner, in an organization now kicking off an LSS community of practice, and about a topic that did not necessarily lend itself naturally to LSS. We will share interesting aspects of this project and broader lessons learned from deploying the LSS methodology in these new ways.