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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Regulation Writing is a Difficult Job

By Georgia Perry-Ray - Regulatory Analyst & Communications Specialist

Regulation writing is a difficult job. Not only does the writer need to think of what he or she is trying to convey but to whom. The audience in many cases will have diverse education levels with limited internal knowledge of the writer’s organization or its processes and procedures. Often is the case when the reader does not have the same expertise or background as the writer. Then add another layer with the burden of ensuring all of the legal aspects of the regulation are covered so as to not leave any “loop holes” and the problem is compounded.

Government regulation writers particularly struggle with this issue as the regulation often bounces back and forth for review with the legal department and the departments that are trying to disseminate the information. By the end of the process sometimes the regulation does not even resemble the original draft at all and may not even end up with the same meaning as was originally intended by law. This is true when writing regulations for internal or external use but can be particularly frustrating for the audience that is outside of that particular governmental system. For example, all of us who have ever filed a tax return and had to read through the Internal Revenue Service’s “simplified tax return filing instructions” has experienced first hand the result of regulation writing that has fallen short of our STEM motto “Write it so they can read it”. Just trying to find out if you qualify to have the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) help you with the IRS red tape can be a chore as the Advocate’s office also has” rules” that must be met before you can use their service. They are –

“If you have tried to resolve a tax problem with the IRS and are still experiencing delays or are facing economic harm, you may request the assistance of TAS.

In situations where IRS actions prevent you from providing for necessities such as housing, transportation or food; or if you own a business and are unable to meet basic expenses such as payroll, you may request the assistance of TAS.

If you face a delay of more than 30 days to resolve a tax related problem, or are not receiving a response by the date promised, you may also request assistance from TAS.”[1]

Our learning level analysis of this “simple criteria” at STEM is as follows:

1. The concept "economic harm" is basic college level economics, which many people have not learned. Moreover, the concept of "economic" is not normally applied to personal situations, such as the IRS encounters. The concept of economic harm needs to be spelled out in plain language. Several examples from ordinary life will be required to communicate this concept to ordinary people.

2. The concept "Systemic" is taken from advanced college level biology. Moreover, the concept "Systemic problem" is here a technical word of art, referring to the system of IRS regulations and procedures. This concept will be difficult to convey to ordinary people, who do not know how the IRS operates. It will even be difficult for IRS personnel.

3. The concept "normal channels" requires technical knowledge of what normal IRS channels are. Ordinary people will not know this and in some cases the folks “helping the individual determine if they qualify may not know what “normal channels” are if they do not work in that particular department.

And you thought just getting IRS to fix your problem was the difficult part.

We are by no means singling out the Taxpayer Advocate’s office for criticism as they do perform a valuable and independent service when dealing with IRS and the tax law challenges individuals face every day, nor for that matter just IRS. This is just one example of the problems a regulatory writer faces when trying to convey information to a diverse audience. Knowing your audience plays a vital role inside and outside of your organization and can greatly impact how that regulation is put into practice.

[1] Excerpt from Toolkit-2010 TAS

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