TIME Government

Government Officials May Be Using Less Mumbo Jumbo

Courtesy of the Center for Plain Language This report card shows how well federal government agencies did in 2014, in terms of speaking plainly when communicating with the public. It was released on Jan. 27, 2015.

"They just don’t write that well"

On Tuesday, the non-profit Center for Plain Language released its third annual report card for federal government agencies. Those who are following the spirit and letter of the Plain Writing Act—a 2010 law designed to eliminate bureaucratic gobbledygook—got A’s. Those who failed to abide and didn’t submit documents to be reviewed earned big fat F’s.

The bad news is that government agencies are still using words like weatherization, gasification, grantsmanship and interdependencies. The good news is that, overall, the average grade is going up, with 16 of 22 departments improving over the previous year’s grades.

That means fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Defense:

The Deputy Secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the DoD, is delegated full power and authority to act for the Secretary and to exercise the powers of the Secretary on any and all matters for which the Secretary is authorized to act.

And more sentences like this, from the Social Security Administration:

You need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and get some other government services.

As well as fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Education (note, this really is just one sentence):

Comparison teachers included those from traditional routes to certification (those who completed all requirements for certification, typically through an undergraduate or graduate program in education, before they began to teach) and teachers from less selective alternative routes to certification (programs that allowed teachers to begin to teach before completing all requirements for certification, but that were not as selective as TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs).

And more sentences like this, from the Transportation Security Administration:

Fireworks are not permitted in checked or carry-on baggage.

But the Center for Plain Language also did things a little bit differently this time around. Rather than just grading compliance (Does the agency appoint someone to oversee their plain language endeavors? Is there a way for the public to give the agency feedback about their language?), they gave each agency a grade for compliance, writing samples and information design. The latter is a web-inspired category that’s all about using typeface and white space and graphics to make complex ideas easier to digest. In that area, most agencies came away with C’s.

“They just don’t write that well,” Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the Center for Plain Language, says about government employees. “There’s a lot of feeling that if it doesn’t look complex and legal maybe it’s not legal … It’s just counter to the culture of the government, and people struggle to write plainly.” When it comes to visual elements, she says that’s not even on most agencies’ radars. They’re all text and no pictures. “It will be a while before they dig themselves out of the hole and get to the high level that some private sector companies already have,” she says.

Cheek has been lobbying for Washington, D.C., denizens to speak simply with the public for the past 20 years. And she says that despite the government’s taste for overwrought sentences, “we are finally seeing some significant progress.”

The full report card is above. Cheek says that they’ll likely be dropping the compliance grade next year, since almost every agency has figured out how to follow the letter of the law (note all the A’s). And rather than letting the agencies cherry-pick samples to submit—which forces some skepticism about how much these grades really convey—the Center’s researchers will be making their own selections. The grades for writing were determined by feeding example documents through a software program that picked out red flags like long words, needless words and passive verbs. The information design scores were determined by two people independently scoring the documents’ visual elements.

The Act itself doesn’t include a process for oversight, which is why the Center for Plain Language developed this annual process for rewarding straightforward speech and holding jargon-lovers’ feet to the fire.

TIME

U.S. Women Leadership Ranking is Pathetic Compared to Other Countries

Democratic Women
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images House Democratic women of the 114th Congress including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, pose for a picture on the House steps of the Capitol, Jan. 7, 2015.

We're not even close to the top

When it comes to women in leadership roles, the U.S. isn’t cutting it.

According to a new comparison by Pew, the U.S. ranks 33rd out of 49 high-income countries when it comes to women in the national legislature (20% of the House and Senate are women). When they expanded the comparison to 137 countries, the U.S. dropped to 83rd (these calculations were made were using data from mid-2014, but even when the most recent Congressional elections are taken into consideration, the U.S. only rises to 75th place.)

We did a little better when it comes to women in cabinet or government managerial positions: the U.S. ranked 25th out of 141 countries, and when the pool was narrowed to high-income countries, we tied for 12th place with Canada.

Pew also tracked “legislators, senior officials, and managers,” a category which includes corporate leaders, heads of nonprofits or unions, and policymakers. Among high-income countries, the U.S. was tied with Barbados, Tobago, and Trinidad for fourth place, but when the comparison was expanded to 125 countries with data available, the U.S. dropped to 16th place.

In other words, for all our striving, we’re not being particularly effective at electing female leaders compared to other countries. Especially compared to Rwanda, where 64% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are held by women.

[Pew]

MONEY The Economy

The 2015 State of the Union Address In Under 2 Minutes

President Barack Obama highlighted the recovering economy as well as proposals for free community college, increasing trade with Cuba, and building more infrastructure.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Independent and third party candidates could break D.C. gridlock — if they can get to Washington.

By Tom Squitieri in the Hill

2. A new software project has surgeons keeping score as a way to improve performance and save lives.

By James Somers in Medium

3. The New American Workforce: In Miami, local business are helping legal immigrants take the final steps to citizenship.

By Wendy Kallergis in Miami Herald

4. Policies exist to avoid the worst results of head injuries in sports. We must follow them to save athletes’ lives.

By Christine Baugh in the Chronicle of Higher Education

5. Sal Khan: Use portfolios instead of transcripts to reflect student achievement.

By Gregory Ferenstein at VentureBeat

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Foreign policy isn’t public relations. The value of releasing the torture report outweighs the risks.

By Daniel Larison in the American Conservative

2. Innovation in design — not technology — might be the key to disrupting industries.

By Todd Olson in Medium

3. The simple notion of community potlucks is working to rebuild the torn fabric of Ferguson.

By Shereen Marisol Meraji at National Public Radio

4. A new poverty alleviation strategy is built on feedback and direction from the actual beneficiaries — putting people at the center of policy.

By Molly M. Scott in RealClearPolicy

5. Women are uniquely positioned to understand the impact of climate change around the world. They must have a seat at the table to set global policy.

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in the Aspen Journal of Ideas

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Taxes

As Gas Prices Go Down, Likelihood of Higher Gas Taxes Goes Up

It's no wonder that many are calling for higher gas taxes lately: Gas prices are the cheapest they've been in years, so a hike in gas taxes is less likely to drive drivers nuts.

Raising taxes is never popular. But if there was ever a way to make a tax increase more palatable to Americans, it would be with a tax hike that didn’t seem like much of a tax hike. Like, say, one that was optimally planned so that even after the tax increase was instituted, the average household wouldn’t feel like it was paying much more out of pocket than it was in the recent past.

Just such a rare opportunity is now upon us. Gas prices have plummeted—dipping under $2 per gallon in some markets, with further decreases likely—and some want to take advantage of the situation by jacking up the gas tax at both the state and federal levels. Depending on how high taxes are raised, drivers might very well still be paying less to fill up than they were a few months or a year ago. So in a way, at least theoretically, this is a tax hike that wouldn’t feel like a typical tax hike.

A recent Washington Post column pointed out that the federal gas tax has been stuck at a flat 18.4¢ since 1993. At the time, the price of a gallon of regular was about $1. “It’s been a generation since gas taxes were increased at all,” Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund, told the Post. “So they are incredibly low by historic levels.”

Over the years, many have called for increases to the federal gas tax, which has not kept up with inflation. “Inflation has effectively reduced the [gas] tax rate by about one third” over the last two decades, the nonpartisan Tax Foundation noted earlier this year. Most states have flat gas taxes as well, and critics say the revenues collected are falling well short of what’s needed to address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. “At the state and local levels, gas taxes cover less than half of state and local transportation spending,” said Tax Foundation economist Joseph Henchman.

Again, there’s nothing really new about calls to raise more funds to fix roads and other infrastructure needs at the national and state levels. What is new, however, is that gas is the cheapest it’s been in years, and that projections indicate per-gallon prices will remain well under $3 indefinitely. Predictions call for a national average of $2.94 per gallon next year, which would be roughly 45¢ less than 2014 and 70¢ less what drivers typically paid in 2012.

Hence the fresh push to raise gas taxes while prices at the pump are inexpensive. As Elaine S. Povich of the Pew Charitable Trusts observed recently:

“Cheap gasoline makes such levies more politically palatable, since consumers are less likely to notice the extra burden when they are filling up.”

It must be noted that while the federal gas tax hasn’t budged in two decades, state gas taxes (and other local taxes that help support roads and infrastructure) have been increased fairly regularly. Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and West Virginia are among the states where gas taxes were hiked this year or last, and discussions are in the works to raise state gas taxes in Iowa, Utah, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and beyond. Data from the American Petroleum Institute shows that nationally, drivers pay an average of 49.28¢ per gallon when state and federal levies are added up.

While it’s unsurprising that environmental supporters and academics such as Mississippi State’s Sid Salter are renewing cries for gas tax hikes while gas prices are cheap, it’s particularly noteworthy that some Republicans seem in favor of tax increases at this opportune moment in time as well.

Last month, U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) actually criticized President Obama for refusing to consider a gas tax increase over the years. “I always thought that was ironic, that he’s willing to raise every other tax,” Thune said to the Rapid City Journal. “And then the one that actually pays for something you can see a direct benefit from, he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

More recently, Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI), who is retiring soon, it must be noted, announced he is sponsoring a bill to raise the federal gas tax by 15¢ to 33¢ by 2013. “No one likes taxes,” Petri said in a Huffington Post interview in early December:

“But the issue is whether we should pay for transportation, or cut back on spending and transportation and have less roads and poorer infrastructure, or borrow it from our kids — debt financing it and hoping someone pays the debt off at a future date. And of those choices, it seems to me that the most responsible long-term approach is to do the thing that is unpopular but necessary.”

It helps that the move won’t be quite as unpopular as it would be had the gas tax hike been introduced back when the average driver was paying $3.50 or $3.75 per gallon.

TIME politics

Crime and Punishment in America: What We Are Doing Wrong

Chain link fence with barbed wire and razor wire
Getty Images

patheoslogo_blue

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

10.2 million people sit in prison cells today around the world– and almost half of them are right here, in the United States. While in the US we like to boast about being “#1″ we forget that we’re actually #1 at a lot of things that we probably shouldn’t be proud of – and having the highest incarceration rate in the world is one of them.

And, it’s not just our incarceration numbers that should be a shock to our system, but the recidivism rate that we should find most concerning. In a study from 2005-2010, researchers found that 3 out of 4 former prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years after being released from prison.

Simply put, the way we approach crime and punishment doesn’t work.

I remember back to my days listening to talk radio and the initial chatter of prison overcrowding once we started to realize that our prisons were beginning to bulge at the seams. I distinctly remember the solution one commentator had: build more prisons.

Unfortunately, the approach of building more prisons and punishing more harshly (aka, mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, the war on drugs) hasn’t worked and has only led to more of the same. In fact, some of our harsh approach to crime and punishment has actually led to more crime as nonviolent offenders (such as folks going to jail for marijuana offenses), come out on the other side of prison more “hardened” than they were to begin with. Throw into the mix the huge vocational barriers someone with a criminal record faces, and our situation is ripe for failure– one that actively produces more crime and brokenness, not less.

Actually, it’s beyond ripe for failure – it has failed. Past tense.

The traditional American approach to crime and punishment doesn’t work.

This past week I’ve been reading a great new book by Derek Flood called Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and really connected with his thoughts in a section called A Practical Guide To Enemy-Love. In regards to our failed approach to crime and punishment he writes:

We commonly think of justice in terms of retribution. When we speak of a person “getting justice ” we mean getting punishment. Love of enemies challenges this understanding of justice and asks: what if justice was not about punishing and hurting, but about mending and making things right again? What if justice was not about deterring through negative consequences, but about doing something good in order to reverse those hurtful dynamics? What if real justice was about repairing broken lives?”

I’ve certainly spoken of this difference between restorative justice and punitive justice both here on the blog and in my book, Undiluted, but Flood brings up some really good additional thoughts on the matter. He goes on to say:

“The sad fact is that our current prison system has become a factory for hardening criminals rather than healing them. Instead of learning empathy and how to manage their impulses and emotions, the brutal culture of prison life teaches inmates that one must be brutally violent in order to survive. Because of these patterns learned in prison, the alarming repeat offense rate is sadly not all that surprising. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform repentance. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. Retribution gains popular support by appealing to our most primitive impulses, but in the end results in a broken system that perpetuates hurt instead and cycles of violence.”

In the book, Flood cites a successful program that clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of a restorative justice approach over a punitive approach: the RSVP program run by the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department. In this alternative program, they took some of their most violent offenders and tried a restorative approach instead of just locking them up and throwing away the key. This program that taught them communal living, personal dignity, development of empathy for others, and how to manage their own emotions, had some results many might find surprising: an 80% reduction in violent recidivism, and the total elimination of assault on prison officials (pg. 185).

The effectiveness of restorative justice compared to punitive justice is simply amazing. But, that really shouldn’t be a shock to us. Why wouldn’t restoring a life work better than simply subjecting it to punishment?

The American approach to crime and punishment needs some re-framing because the old way simply doesn’t work. A punitive focused approach results in over populated prisons filled to the brim– both with some folks who justly should be there, and some who probably should not. All however, are forced to acclimate to a violent prison life that simply turns them into “hardened criminals” even if they didn’t arrive as one. When they are released, they face so many barriers to reintegration into society that the violent survival mechanisms the prison system taught them quickly become one of their only tools to move forward in life.

We cannot continue a system with this philosophical approach and think that we’re actually doing justice– we’re not. Justice, as I write in Undiluted, is about “making the world a little less broken and a little more right,” and as Flood points out in Disarming Scripture, our current system does anything but that.

The solution?

We must become people who long to see a life restored instead of a life destroyed, and we must become willing to do whatever it takes to make the former happen, while resisting the easier path of doing the latter. Together, we can begin to influence culture in such a way that we reform our penal system to become something that sees justice as a life restored instead of punishment given.

Benjamin L. Corey, is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore.

Read more from Patheos:

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Government

Americans Actually Love the Post Office

United States Postal Service clerks sort mail at the USPS Lincoln Park carriers annex in Chicago
John Gress—Reuters USPS mail clerks sort packages in Chicago, November 29, 2012. A new Gallup poll shows that most Americans think the post office is doing a good or excellent job despite its financial difficulties.

Poll finds that the beleaguered USPS is the nation's most-liked government agency

Complaining about the post office is an American pastime, like griping about Congress, or whining about the DMV. Who, in their right mind, actually likes dealing with the post office?

A lot of people, it turns out. According to a new Gallup survey, 72% of Americans say the U.S. Postal Service is doing an excellent or good job. That puts the USPS ahead of 12 other government agencies, including the FBI, the CDC, NASA and the CIA. And the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to think highly of our much-maligned courier: 81% of 18-to-29-year-olds rated the post office’s job as excellent or good, while 65% of those over 65 said the same thing.

So what accounts for the post office’s surprising popularity? Age, for one.

(MORE: The Postmaster General Hangs Up His Mail Bag, With a Parting Shot at Congress)

As the volume of letters has declined, the USPS has evolved to become as much a courier of packages as it is a way to send and receive first-class mail. In the last few years, the post office has not only expanded its delivery of parcels (it recently began a partnership with Amazon to deliver on Sundays), but it also often delivers packages for FedEx and UPS in what’s called “last mile” delivery, which are shipments to residents that private carriers don’t service. That means millennials interact less with the USPS at its worst — the interminable lines at understaffed post offices — and more from the comfort of home, where the mailman is the person at the door with their new shoes from Amazon or their iPhone from the Apple store.

The post office is also the one agency that Americans actually see doing its job each day. You see postal employees on their routes. You can see post offices open. When’s the last time you saw an FDA worker inspecting your local restaurant or the Federal Reserve Board in action as it plotted the end of quantitative easing?

Not that the latest survey should make the post office rejoice. The faltering institution has run deficits every year since 2007 and its aggressive efforts to adapt to the digital age have not yet been enough to offset the substantial drop in mail volume and onerous Congressional mandates to fund retirees. But it never hurts to have the public on your side.

TIME Government

U.S. Postal Service Selects First Female Postmaster General

COO and Executive Vice President of U.S. Postal Service Megan Brennan listens to questions from the media after a news conference on Sept. 15, 2011 at the headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington.
Alex Wong—Getty Images COO and Executive Vice President of U.S. Postal Service Megan Brennan listens to questions from the media after a news conference on Sept. 15, 2011 at the headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington.

Megan Brennan joined the service as a letter carrier in 1986

The United States Postal Service has selected its first-ever female Postmaster General, the agency announced Friday, following the upcoming retirement of its current head.

Megan Brennan, who rose from a letter carrier in Pennsylvania in 1986 to chief operating officer in late 2010, will take over for Patrick Donahoe, who previously announced he would step down in February after 39 years with the service.

“She is highly regarded throughout the Postal Service and among the broader community of our major customers and business partners—and rightly so,” said Mickey Barnett, chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, of Brennan. “As the head of operations, Megan has led important initiatives to provide Sunday delivery services, improved tracking, and greater predictability and reliability.”

USPS has around 491,000 employees, roughly 220,000 fewer than a decade ago, as it continues to transition into an increasingly paperless age. While USPS operating revenue increased $569 million this fiscal year, the agency suffered a $5.5 billion net loss.

TIME Security

Report: Feds Using Airplanes to Target Criminal Suspects’ Cell-Phone Data

Cessna taxiing
Wellsie82—Moment Open/Getty Images

Devices on planes said to simulate cell towers and trick phones into reporting data

The Justice Department is using equipment on board aircraft that simulates cell towers to collect data from criminal suspects’ cell phones, according to a report Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the operations, reports that a program operating under the U.S. Marshals Service is said to use small aircraft flying from five different airports around the country. Devices aboard those planes called “dirtboxes” essentially trick the suspects’ cellphones into thinking they’re connecting to legitimate cell towers from big wireless carriers like Verizon or AT&T, allowing the feds to scoop up personal data and location information about those targeted.

However, the report details those devices could be gathering data from “tens of thousands” of Americans in a single flight, meaning nonsuspects are likely to be included in the data roundup. The new report could shed some light on earlier reports of mysterious “phony” cell towers that security researchers have found around the country.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com