Plain Language and Democracy

Jargon and Pomposity


Last summer I was asked by a friend who is a single parent to read the draft of her will. The section in question was meant to define legal guardianship and financial oversight for her three-year-old daughter if she died or was disabled.

The document her lawyer prepared was incomprehensible. My friend has a Master’s Degree in education and is a high school counselor. I have fairly extensive experience reading contracts and legal documents. I was grievance chair, president, and board member of the AFL-CIO affiliated union for faculty and professional staff at the State University of New York (SUNY). I was extensively involved in writing the first policies for SUNY Empire State college when it was established in the early 1970s. I enjoy sorting out language and studying word origins to understand meaning. Thus, I consider myself reasonably adept at reading legal documents.

I could not understand any of the sentences related to custody. What my friend wanted specified was:

  • Who was to take immediate custody
  • Who would have long-term custody
  • Who would have financial responsibility

None of this was clear to her or to me. Specific people were identified by name but what they were supposed to do and when was a mystery.

Without a will, a neighbor would have cared for the child while the mother’s family and friends were contacted. They would have worked out the logical arrangement. With this will, no one knew what to do, and worse, they would be afraid to do anything because they might be doing something illegal.

Language and Power

Plain language, often called Plain English, eliminates jargon, pomposity, and arrogance. It emphasizes clarity, brevity, and technical language. It states intentions and requirements clearly using everyday vocabulary. It forces understanding instead of repetition. It eliminates boiler-plate paragraphs in circuitous and pompous eighteen-century language that often even the lawyers who use it cannot explain.

As the renowned physicist Albert Einstein said:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Inaccurate and obtuse language intimidates. It guarantees that ordinary people cannot exercise or even understand their rights. It subverts democracy and creates autocratic relationships. It protects professional elitism, and thus power over others. It assumes and ensures that we are not all created equal.

Plain Language and Democracy

Though many people, mostly writers, have advocated the use of plain language for decades, a noted event was an essay published in 1946 by author and critic George Orwell “Politics and the English Language.” He criticized what he saw as the dangers of “ugly and inaccurate” written English that enabled political manipulation. Another was UCLA School of Law professor David Mellinkoff’s The Language of the Law published in 1963. Mellinkoff is credited with beginning the plain English movement in the legal profession.

The driving force for the use of plain language, however, was the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism, in particular, demanded democratization of medical, legal, and government communications in all forms. Medical records were not even available to patients because “they would not understand them.”

The civil rights movements demanded that people have access to documents that affected them. Access included being understandable by a literate and reasonably well-educated person. This has led to legislation that requires plain language in all federal government documents and to plain language training programs for professionals. And medical records are now available to patients.

 Like Democracy, A Long Way to Go

In 2014, as my friend’s will demonstrated, plain language is still not accepted or trusted by many. When I gave her a sample custody agreement written in plain language, she was told by her lawyer that unless “legal language” was used, her will would not be enforceable.

My advice was to change lawyers, but she had already invested hundreds of dollars in this one. When she started asking questions, her lawyer said, “Trust me.” So she did. I hope for more reasons than one that nothing happens to her before her daughter is of age. (I live next door.)

When I discuss democracy in the places we live—neighborhoods, homeowner associations, institutions—and in our schools which are unspeakably undemocratic, I receive the same responses as my friend. We can’t do this because there are laws—or there are no laws. If we do it, we might be breaking the law. We will lose in court. We’ve done everything we can. “Trust me.”

Plain language and democracy are mutually sustaining. When people write in plain language it is much clearer whether they understand what they are saying. And when everyone understands what everyone else is saying, there is more opportunity to act as equals and to have equal understanding of our agreements.

Change Expectations

One of my mantras, that you are probably tired of hearing, is “The first step is changing expectations.” What if my friend had asked for a refund because the will should be understandable to her first, and then to her friends and family who would be executing it. That is a perfectly reasonable standard for a document that will determine the future of your child. But who sets standards?

What if we wrote standards for our public officials? Ones that included methods of measurement. What if we actually evaluated them annually? Not setting up commissions or institutions or national standards but just doing it. Each neighborhood would say we have six issues on which we want progress or resolution. Each neighbor could rate each issue from 1-5. Simple and direct. Numbers speak volumes and they spark discussion.

We could also use a happiness index, such as the Legatum Prosperity Index, to measure our satisfaction with a variety of social, political, and economic conditions?  Use it to measure our everyday lives, to measure our satisfaction with our children’s educations, with crime in our neighborhoods, or friendliness in our communities.

Doing any of these would define our expectations of democracy in plain language with no institutional overlays of obscure mathematically derived measurements, jargon, that removes them from our personal experience.

For Extra Credit: Resources on Plain Language

The Plain English Foundation, “Getting to the Point,” was established in 2000 in Sydney Australia, to raise public awareness of the social and political benefits of Plain English. It offers clear writing workshops, sample documents and writing tools, and editing and document evaluation services.

Plain English at a Glance by Nancy M. Smith, former Director, SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Assistance, and Ann D. Wallace, former Senior Counsel to the Director, Division of Corporation Finance. Tips include visual layout. How words look on the page greatly improves readability as well as understanding. On the website which has many other resources including guides to the federal government requirements for using plain language.

Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick is in its 5th edition and has been used for over 25 years in law schools.

Best Books on Legal Writing by Scott Wood, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles on the Los Angeles County Bar Association website. The website includes other articles on plain language—search “plain language.”

An example of a  Simple Basic Will in Plain English on the FindLaw website. Each provision is explained clearly at greater length than the original provision.

Update on A Deeper Democracy

My Frazzled Brain

My Frazzled Brain

In January 2014, I decided that developing both my Sociocracy site and my Deeper Democracy site was turning me into a frazzled mess. In order to focus, I imported all the information from A Deeper Democracy to, planning to close down A Deeper Democracy. I spent almost a year developing as both a guide to the principles and methods of sociocracy and an exploration in relation to other ideas. I put a closed align on A Deeper Democracy and let it be.

The problem was that writing about democracy, sociocracy, and governance all at the same time was confusing readers who were trying to learn sociocracy. Learning new methods is easier when the teaching focuses rather narrowly on the specific methods. To compare and integrate diverse ideas is a more advanced and a different task.

Combining my two interests—providing a comprehensive guide to sociocracy and exploring other ideas from the point of view of sociocracy—wasn’t going to work. And even without updates, the Deeper Democracy site was continuing to have high traffic.

A Resource & a Blog

My resolution is to develop as a resource site on Sociocracy, and develop A Deeper Democracy as an ongoing blog examining governance in society.  It will take some time to sort the two sites out because it involves re-categorizing the hundreds of details of posts, pages, categories, and tags that have been exported and combined on one site and then imported back. There is much duplication and disorder now. I am convinced, however, that the time spent spinning my wheels to put things in place will be worth the time.


So with this update on A Deeper Democracy, I also messed up subscriptions. I informed people when I closed down A Deeper Democracy that I was also transferring all the users. This time, everyone was imported back when I only intended to import posts. Sorting that out is impossible because I don’t have old records.

So I ask your patience if you receive unwanted emails. I will put a big unsubscribe link  in the emails about new posts. If you have to log in, you may have to update your password. I have not a clue why—I just saw a notice about it. I’m better at writing than understanding what is under the hood. If all else fails, email me directly and I’ll unsubscribe you.

With any luck I’ll finish before I run out of Law & Order reruns on Netflix. Since I’ve seen most of them 2-3 times, they will keep my monkey mind occupied  while I toil away at the sorting out.

Collaborative Collective Cooperative

Ornamental Capital Letter CCollaborative, collective, and cooperative are words often used interchangeably. When I hear them I wonder which one the speaker or writer means. I use them interchangeably too, sort of giving equal time to all of them. I have a preference for cooperative because it seems to have fewer political overtones than collective, and collaborative reminds me of clabber. It sticks in my throat.

The Problem with Dictionaries

The dictionary definitions of these three words don’t help very much because they tend to give each as a synonyms of the other, particularly collaborative with collective and collective with cooperative. Remember when dictionaries told you which word was correct? They might have been too proscriptive but at least they preserved the precision of language.

There is great value in language becoming new with inventive applications and combinations that play off the original, but smushing words together with no regard for distinct word origins and historical use is not inventive. It’s lazy.

So I decided not to be lazy and look for something that did more than reflect how words are used whether the usage is meaningful or not.

Collaborative Collective Cooperative

On distinctions between collaborative, collective, and cooperative, journals in education are  the clearest—with economics, sociology, and political science not very much interested—at least as far as I was willing to go in a Sunday afternoon library search. In education the distinctions become important because educators are teaching skills. To teach skills you have to be clear what you are teaching and what you need to accomplish. educators have learned that:

One can design a collaborative task in which there is no collective learning and reward coöperation without producing collaboration.

According to dictionary definitions this sentence is gibberish. In reality it is very meaningful and in seeking to develop sociocratic societies, crucial. Self-organizing people may be cooperative but not have the skills to collaborate well enough to produce a collective result.


Collaboration is sharing knowledge or services with others on the solution to a problem, an investigation of an event, or development of a product. Collaboration doesn’t mean necessarily that people are working together in unison. They contribute in a way that helps others  accomplish very different aims. They may be working toward the same aim in their own domain,  but not necessarily.

Collaboration does not require that each person contribute equally to a task but means they all share what they can that will help to accomplish each other’s goals.


Collective refers to actions done as a group. A Corn Collective grows, picks, and sells corn. A Collective to Stop Hunger in Chicago, will be composed of people working together on projects that serve the aim. Members function more or less as equals in the sense that they work together and the company or resources are typically not owned by someone else. They have both unity of ambition and self-determination.

In the education program where students learned to work collaboratively but not collectively, most individuals were able to contribute in tasks but some were not able to function as a member of a group that accomplished a particular task. Some students remained individual collaborators.


Cooperative means people are willing and able to accommodate and support others. A cooperative person may not have a common aim with another person or group, but they are tolerant and helpful. They are not generally belligerent or refusing to participate.

In cooperative organizations, like food coops, there are many different kinds of participants— customers, investors, workers, managers, governing bodies, etc. They are not collaborators because they aren’t independently sharing information or tasks. They aren’t a collective because they aren’t all doing the same thing or have the same socio-economic interests.

They all assume a role and often make a commitment to make the food coop successful, but they do so as individuals with individual aims—individuals in that each one serves their own needs differently even though they all eat food. They often don’t know each other.

Of Course  …

Of course all these words have noun, adjective, and verb forms and secondary meanings  that confuse things. This exercise, however, was useful to me in making distinctions between the skills required to participate in collaborative, collective, or cooperative organizations.

In the end, sociocratic organizations could be any of these. Since sociocracy is a governance system that can  be adapted to any form of organization, it can be adapted to collaboratives, collectives, or cooperatives.

The question is the method inherently collaborative? Collaborative is the hot word these days. People like it and I see it in many places in descriptions of sociocracy. I’m not sure any of these words is appropriate in a general application. Organizing sociocratically doesn’t necessarily make an organization collaborative, collective, or cooperative. But it does encourage all three.

Definition of Consensus Decision-Making


This is the standard definition of consensus used since the 1960s and 1970s, and probably before. It was published in 1981 in United Judgement: The Handbook of Consensus Decision Making by the Center for Conflict Resolution.

The goal of consensus is a decision that is consented to by all members. Of course, full consent does not mean that everyone must be completely satisfied with the final outcome—in fact, total satisfaction is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that all will agree to support the group in choosing it.

This handbook was printed in typescript and circulated in various forms years before publication and is considered one of the classics. It was reprinted in 1999 by the Fellowship for Intentional Community and is available from their bookstore. They also have other books and reprints from Communities Magazine on consensus decision-making.

What Is a Policy?

When I recently looked at my stats for the site, I was surprised to find that the most searched and most read page was Policy Decisions. Then I remembered how hard it was for me to distinguish policy decisions from operations decisions when I started writing about sociocracy. Let’s look at standard definitions of policy.

A Policy Is…

Bill of Rights

United States Bill of Rights

Policy is defined variously as a principle or protocol that:

  • guides the day-to-day “doing” decisions
  • states an intent or principle of action adopted by a government, business, organization, or person
  • defines the principles that will guide and determine present and future decisions
  • outlines an overall plan for general goals and acceptable procedures
  • defines an organization or team purpose and domain of responsibility and accountability
  • establishes financial constraints
  • guides practice

Origins: Middle English police, government, policy, from Middle French police, police. First Known Use: 15th century.

Synonyms: blueprint,design, plan, scheme, strategy, intention, purpose, approach,method, path,pathway

Examples of Policies

  • Vision, Mission, Aim statements
  • Budgets
  • Allocation of resources—people, facilities, money, etc.
  • Contracts between people, organizations, etc.
  • Job or role descriptions

As Opposed to Operations Decisions…

Operations decisions are made to cover day-to-day decisions:

  • determine a method or way of functioning
  • mathematical or logical processes that follow rules
  • a step performed by a computer executing a program

Example:  A military action, mission, or maneuver that involves tactical planning and execution (operations) within the bounds of laws (policies) about civilian safety and sovereign boundaries.

Policy Decisions vs Operations Decisions

We often just lump these together and file them away in the notes or  our memories. In many offices, there may not even be notes. Just memos, also filed away. Or tacked to a busy bulletin board.

Policies are also most often written by people who are levels and levels above us, at the management level or in academic institutions, the most senior faculty. People we may not even know or interact with. We may never have had to make a policy decision. Personal policy decisions may not be recognized as such. In sociocracy, everyone is expected to make policy decisions so it becomes important to understand what they are, what they do, and that they can be changed.

The sociocratic circular organization method has distinct processes for policy and operations decisions and extends both to all levels or components of an organization. This is fundamental. This practice ensures that in a sociocratic organization, both kinds of decisions are recognized as important in all its units, not just at the top levels. And that policy properly guides operations.

Why Policy Decisions?

Policy decisions are agreements about how we will live and work together. They are often called rules, norms, or codes. And most often they are unconsciously determined. Without conscious decisions on policies that are written and have the consent of everyone they govern, a group is subject to control that is unacknowledged, idiosyncratic, autocratic, and often discriminatory.

The classic essay by Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, analyzes the effect of avoiding policy decisions and recognized leadership. There are always leaders and always policies. But if they are unacknowledged they can’t be corrected. They can’t be improved. They remain an unspoken tyranny.

Yves Morieux: Smart Simplicity

Yves Morieux speaking on stage.A wonderful discovery today, “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify,” a TED Talk by Yves Morieux. Morieux is a senior partner in the Washington DC office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)  and director of the BCG Institute for Organization. He studies how changes in structure can improve motivation for employees.

“Smart Simplicity” uses six key rules that encourage cooperation to solve long-term problems. Not by just reducing costs and increasing profit, but also by maximizing engagement in all levels of the organization.

The focus of Morieux’s work is very compatible with sociocracy. He stresses collaboration over rule-making, self-organization over central authority,  and effective action over complex, multi-layered planning.

A 350% Increase in Complexity

In his TED Talk, Morieux first critiques the increasingly complex designs for business plans that might have 5 headings with 25 subheadings under each one, resulting in 125 cogent topics, each with numerous subcategories. Combined with an equally complicated workflow and organizational structure chart, it produces a brilliant, mind-numbing, and wholly unimplementable plan. Impressive in good graphics but hopeless in practice.

The need for an emphasis on smart simplicity is supported by a study done by BCG that reported:

We’ve created an “index of complicatedness,” based on surveys of more than 100 U.S. and European listed companies, which measures just how big the problem is.The survey results show that over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed in each of those firms has increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%.

A wonderful part of the video is when he recites an example of such business plans with their myriad of meaningless words. He has the memorization skills of an actor and the facility of a professional fast talker so he got himself through it without notes and within 12 minutes. If he had a teleprompter, speaking that fast would have burned out its circuits.

Feedback Loops & Decentralization

Morieux emphasizes that self-organization is dependent on feedback loops to make decentralization work. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2011, he says:

There are six smart rules. The first three involve enabling—providing the information needed to understand where the problems are and empowering the right people to make good choices. The second three involve impelling—motivating people to apply all their abilities and to cooperate, thanks to feedback loops that expose them as directly as possible to the consequences of their actions. The idea is to make finding solutions to complex performance requirements far more attractive than disengagement, ducking cooperation, or finger-pointing. When the right feedback loops are in place, cumbersome alignment mechanisms, ranging from compliance metrics to the proliferation of committees—can be eliminated, along with their costs, and employees find solutions that create more value.

This is has been an important point for theories of circular organization since the 1970s and for understanding sociocracy. Feedback loops are necessary to implement decentralization and impelling cooperation and self-organization.

Morieux’s Smart Rules

  • Rule 1: Improve Understanding of What Coworkers Do
  • Rule 2: Reinforce the People Who Are Integrators
  • Rule 3: Expand the Amount of Power Available
  • Rule 4: Increase the Need for Reciprocity
  • Rule 5: Make Employees Feel the Shadow of the Future
  • Rule 6: Put the Blame on the Uncooperative

For More: Two Readings

From the Harvard Business Review,
“Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You.” September 2011.

Book Cover: Six Simple RulesMorieux’s book at Amazon: Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated. 2014

There is also a French edition with a much better title: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué (2014).

Morieux divides his time between leading research and advising senior executives of multinational corporations and public-sector entities in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific on their strategies and organizational transformations. He has been featured in articles on organizational evolution in Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Le Monde.

Encouraging Self-Organization

Logo for Interaction Institute for Social ChangeIn a workshop I conducted last Sunday, one of the participants asked, “How do you encourage self-organization?” By some miracle, probably related to my being on every mailing list on anything related to sociocracy and governance, I received in my mailbox a link to an article on the  Interaction Institute for Social Change. You guessed it on  Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization by Curtis Ogden.

After some editing and additions, here are some ideas:

Encouraging Self Organization in the Environment

  • Create spaces where people from different social and work groups encounter each other in the course of the day.
  • Create open space and unscheduled time at home and the office.

In Meetings and Conversations

  • Expect engagement with decisions by asking open-ended questions.
  • Encourage people in finding their own answers
  • Ask “What should we do next?” and “What haven’t we done?” to encourage curiosity and questioning.
  • Reward innovation and risk-taking. Encourage making corrections and trying again.
  • Emphasize that we learn from mistakes. No mistakes, no  risk, no innovation.
  • Encourage people to focus on their strengths and collaborate with others who have different strengths.
  • Actively share information. Practice transparency.
  • Demonstrate self-organization in your own actions.

Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them.  Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.