Cass Sunstein, former Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, in his new book, Simpler, shares the three most important things he learned during his time in the White House.

Simpler Cass Sunstein

“People stop making some important mistakes when they speak in a foreign language.” Citing the example of cost-benefit analysis as a foreign language, he described it as a great “engine of simplification” by displacing intuitions and counteracting hysteria-forcing people unfamiliar with the language to slow down and act deliberately. This makes me wonder about the “foreign language(s)” we are using in our work and, therefore, the impact on those on the receiving end.

The second lesson deals with unnecessary complexity in rule making. While the rules make sense to the rule writers, they are often “complex, frustrating, and incomprehensible to the public.” Sunstein wrote the guidance on implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010 calling for writing which is “clear, concise, well-organized, and consistent with other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience. Such writing avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity.” Makes me wonder how we’re doing on all of our “rule making” for other agencies and the general public.

News Notes Berryman Cartoon

“News Note, 3/16/1911.” Berryman Political Cartoon Collection. National Archives Identifier 6010881


“Those who have the privilege of serving the American people should listen closely to those whom they are privileged to serve.” Sunstein’s message is one we have taken to heart in our Citizen Archivist activities and the creation of Federal Register 2.0 to tap the dispersed information of the public. Makes me wonder what else we should be doing to learn from those we serve.

Just wondering.

3 thoughts on “Simplification

  1. Totally agree. Here is my favorite saying that simple is harder than complex
    from Steve Jobs

    Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

  2. Good questions! I know I often read what we in government put out and find it off putting myself. I think to myself at times of the over use of jargon and technical terms, “Is this how we would discuss those same issues in lunch time conversations among friends who work in professions other than ours?” I can’t picture that we would. I try to use clear, basic language in both settings although I’m more informal with friends. But why there is a gap between how so many of us talk with friends — people we trust — when not on duty, and some of us talk in formal presentations, is not clear. Does it have something to do with comfort zones and trusting our friends to “accept us?” And not knowing who is reading our official output and pitching it accordingly? I don’t know! Worth examining, given all the plain English initiatives I’ve seen in government over the decades. I think Sunstein is right that over use of jargon and overly complex presentations create barriers sometimes. That said, I don’t know that the term Sunstein uses in his book to describe some of the results–“hysteria”–best captures reactions by people who have to fill out government forms, etc. But Sunstein is on to something in calling for clarity even if there is a lack of clarity as to why that is hard to achieve!

  3. I couldn’t have said it better. Foreign languages are a tool to filter the important and leave out the rest.

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