Plain Language Pays Off for Social Security

Our Social Security Statement reaches 125 million working Americans every year

We’re proud that we played an instrumental role in developing such a highly visible government document. It has been widely accepted as a clear interpretation of complex information.

The original statement SSA developed — a 6-page document called Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement — automatically went to workers who were 60 years old and was intended to give them information about their yearly earnings and their eligibility for SSA benefits. It also explained basic information about SSA programs and benefits.

Rightly, the government was concerned about the clarity and usefulness of the statement when its audience expanded drastically as a result of the legislation. Our preliminary review uncovered a number of flaws that needed to be fixed before the document could even begin to meet its goal. And, ironically, the traditional “plain language” issues of word selection, active voice, and paragraph length had already been solved, but still the document suffered from a great many defects that impeded readability.

Social Security Article

We rolled up our sleeves and followed a systematic plan to ensure that we covered all the necessary areas. Working closely with key SSA staff, we:

  • analyzed the original document, its history of problems and successes, and its constraints;
  • held intensive interviews of all staff members who came into contact with the statement — legal and programming staff, communication and publication personnel, customer service representatives, top managers — to uncover the real constraints, as opposed to the assumed constraints built up in institutional memory.
  • developed four different prototypes (both the language and design) of a new statement that would solve the problems in different ways and tested them with people of four age groups, both with usability tests and in focus group discussions.
  • monitored results of SSA’s survey of 16,000 randomly selected people from the same age groups.
  • elicited comments from agencies and organizations that represented diverse sections of the public.

To read more about the project, see our article, “Plain language pays off for the Social Security Administration“ in Clarity.

See your own Social Security Statement at www.ssa.gov.


Winner of the Plain Language Award

We are pleased to report that one of our most important documents — the Social Security Statement — won Vice President Gore’s Plain Language Award. As Gore noted,

”Millions of Americans depend on Social Security, and by making critical information simpler and more easy to understand, we are better serving the public.”

Wouldn’t you love to get calls like this? Here are some reactions from readers:

  • ”Wonderful redesign! Easy to read and easy to understand — Easy to find the info — Kudos to whoever designed this new form!”
  • ”I received my statement in the mail and just wanted to let someone know that I thought it was very well done. It was clear, comprehensive, and informative … a sign of good government in action. You should be congratulated.” 
  • ”This is the first time that I ever got anything from the government that I read all the way through.”
President Gore's Plain Language Award

According to Reuters, the statement we designed and wrote is making a comeback:

Paper Social Security benefits statements, which used to be mailed out every year and then fell victim to budget cuts, are going to make a partial comeback. Starting this September, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will resume mailings at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online, an agency spokesman told Reuters. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60, he said, adding the agency would continue to promote use of the online statements.

The document has stood the test of time.

Years later, it effectively gives people the information they need to make sound choices about their retirement.