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Saluting the gobbledygook in government

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Friday! In a not-so-subtle jab at bureaucratic language often found in U.S. Code or the Federal Register ("in witness thereof," "notwithstanding" and "directive," among other classics), the Center for Plain Language awarded its National ClearMark Awards on Thursday for the best and worst examples of language in government, business and the nonprofit community.

The center distributed ClearMark awards for examples of good language and WonderMark awards for examples of the worst. HealthWise, an Idaho-based nonprofit group, won the Grand ClearMark Award for a video describing a back pain product. Four federal agencies earned either recognition (see examples of them below):

ClearMark Awards

The Federal Trade Commission won the "Best Original Public Document" award for its new financial model privacy form, essentially a document that financial institutions can use to develop privacy notices for consumers. Judges said it had "an easy-to-read and well-organized design.", a Web site operated by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, won for best public sector Web site, because it "hits the mark with its simple-to-use and easy-to-understand format."

WonderMark Awards

U.S. Customs and Border Protection won the Grand WonderMark Award for the I-94 form, the document tourists must complete before entering the country. One judge described the form as "rife with language that is confusing, arcane, bureaucratic, bizarre, and downright offensive." (Questions on the form include "Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage?")

A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman noted that the form will be replaced in coming months with an electronic version that includes tutorials in several languages.

The Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education was also cited for a final regulation it issued last July about student loans that included two sentences of 84 and 75 words.

"Paragraphs do not start with main ideas," one judge noted. They recommended tables and charts instead.

Do you know of other good and bad examples of government language? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

Cabinet and Staff News: President Obama holds first Supreme Court interview with Judge Sidney Thomas. Obama today visits the U.S. Secret Service training facility in Beltsville, Md. to thank guards for protecting his family, the White House said. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will visit the Gulf Coast today to inspect ongoing efforts to minimize the BP oil spill. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner tells a Senate panel that more needs to be done to help people avoid foreclosure. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will hold a town hall meeting today with business leaders in Philadelphia. The Senate keeps Obama's nominees waiting.

CDC: Swine flu fears pushed seasonal shots to record high: The jump was most dramatic in children, but vaccinations also increased in healthy adults under 50.

CIA to station more analysts overseas as part of its strategy: One U.S. intelligence official said "hundreds" of analysts are already in overseas assignments, a number that is expected to grow under a plan unveiled this week.

The French spy, the CIA, and the Syrian reactor: How French intelligence officials beat the Americans to information on a nuclear reactor.

Video shows Guantanamo detainee building bombs in Afghanistan: The video is a key piece of evidence that shows Omar Khadr conspiring to kill U.S. service members.

FDA approves prostate cancer 'vaccine': The agency approved Provenge, sometimes called a "cancer vaccine" because it stimulates the immune systems of men with advanced prostate cancer to attack their malignancies.

FDA tobacco panelists are challenged: The agency rejected a request by cigarette giant Philip Morris USA to remove four members of a key tobacco-products advisory panel that the company said had extensive conflicts of interest.

Government contests offer different way to find solutions for problems: In seeking solutions to problems, the feds discovered the magic of contests, or challenges -- also known as open grant-making or open innovation.

DHS tackles security in sports arenas: More than 200 government and private sector participants this week gathered near Dulles for the Sports Leagues Conference and Table Top Exercise.

Goldman may face Justice Department review: The Securities and Exchange Commission has referred its investigation of the company to DOJ for possible criminal prosecution.

Ky. mine where 2 died had roof support problems: The rock fall that killed the men happened late Wednesday about four miles inside the Dotiki Mine and instability in the roof hampered rescue efforts, mining officials said Thursday.

NASA balloon crashes on take-off in Australia, destroying telescope:
The telescope "came off the launch vehicle badly and hit the ground several times as the abort completed," said a team member.

Putting a limit on tarmac time: Airlines now face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger when a plane sits on the tarmac for more than two hours without providing food or water or more than three hours without giving passengers the option of getting off the plane.

Watchdog: VA is exceeding veteran contracting goals: But it needs to improve its ability to verify the status of those firms.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | April 30, 2010; 5:10 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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Next: Oil spill: The government's response


My god, yes: please shine a spotlight of shame on the I-94 Immigration form. It's a national embarrassment that this absurd and offensive form is still often the first impression foreign visitors get of the United States.

I cringe every time I'm on a US-bound international flight and watch these awful I-94 forms being handed out to our foreign visitors. The form basically says "If you're a Nazi or a spy, please check this box." Makes the US government look stupid, paranoid, and incompetent all at the same time.

Posted by: 12008N1 | April 30, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

The I-94 is AWFUL. English is my first language, I also speak fluent bureaucrat as a government employee and I had to read it several times to figure out what they wanted on it.

Posted by: katydid13 | April 30, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

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