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National Plain Language Peer to Peer Conference

Key Observations and Best Practices Discussed

  1. Defining Plain Language - Active Voice (PL)

    PL means documents written and formatted such that they are easy to read, understand and utilize. Best practices generally include:

    • Use of the active voice in lieu of the passive voice;
    • Use of the imperative mode;
    • Use of short, simple sentences rather than long, conditional statements;
    • Use of lists whenever practical;
    • Avoiding the use of technical jargon and abbreviations;
    • Avoiding repetition;
    • Use of consistent style and format; and
    • Use of technically correct specifications.

    There are no universally accepted rules and guidelines for PL. Different DOTs have different definitions of PL. Several PL examples are in Appendices D, E and F. Additional guidance is found at www.dotspecs.fhwa.gov and www.plainlanguage.gov.

    A best practice is to develop and use a PL Style Guide that defines PL for your DOT. Use a style guide to ensure specifications are consistently written in PL. An example Style Guide is in Appendix E.

    Your Style Guide ensures that PL specifications developed by delegated function units are consistently written, especially non-standard, project-specific specifications. Use a style guide to ensure the consistent development of PL specifications, especially in decentralized DOTs project delivery units.

    When converting to PL, remember that your primary audience is the construction industry, your construction staff, and the responsive bidder. Your specifications are part of the construction contract that must be followed by the Contractor and DOT.

  2. Status of Plain Language Conversion

    As expected, the status of PL conversion varies from one state to the next. Some states have already converted significant portions of their specifications to PL. Other states are in the middle of the process, while a number of states are contemplating the change.

    One of the major differences is between those states implementing a stand-alone PL conversion as compared to those states that are converting to PL while at the same time updating technical content. In the ideal world, only a conversion to PL would be necessary. However, it makes no sense to convert an obsolete, outdated or incorrect specification to PL. In fact, conversion to PL is an opportunity to correct and update technical content, and vice versa.

    The PL conversions that are underway or have been completed all started with conversion of the Standard Specification to PL, in particular, with conversion of what are commonly called either Division 1 or Division 100 requirements. Next in line for PL conversion are the Technical Specifications and Materials Specifications (commonly called Division 2 and Division 3, or Division 200 and Division 300, respectively). Construction Manuals and Design Manuals are typically the next priority. One state is moving toward replacing its construction manual with an interactive website. However, this may be problematic for remote users or users working out of their trucks without ready access to an office.

    The Contract Terms and Conditions themselves, as well as bid forms, which typically must meet certain legal sufficiency requirements, are generally outside the scope of a PL conversion.

    Other documents that are candidates for PL conversion include standard drawings and QA/QC manuals.

    States that had completed all or part of a PL conversion all remarked on the significant investment of time and resources required. Converting Division 1 requirements to PL takes between 18 months and 2 to 3 years or more. In practice, the conversion to PL is an ongoing initiative of continuous quality improvement as specifications are corrected, changed, and updated over time. A similar time frame can be expected for converting construction manuals or other manuals to PL. The conversion process is not simple and takes time.

  3. Converting Specifications to Plain Language

    Key observations and best practices for converting Specifications to PL include:

    • Obtain full commitment and support from the highest administrative and executive levels within your DOT. Conversion to PL requires a significant commitment of time and resources, so a long-term commitment by the organization is required to achieve success;
    • Obtain early involvement and support of industry. As the key end-user of the specifications, industry must be brought in early in the process and remain engaged. Industry must buy into the process and to the end result. Include industry representation in your working groups and specifications review committees;
    • Identify who will be responsible for converting a section to PL - will it be a specifications engineer, a consultant, or a designer;
    • Identify technical leads within the state DOT responsible for the technical content of each section;
    • If possible, develop a work plan and schedule for converting each section;
    • Create liaison committees with specific industry groups to assist in the PL conversion, especially if you are changing technical content, and include all relevant stakeholders within your organization on these committees;
    • Create review committees involving all stakeholders (for example, your legal department, materials suppliers, and FHWA). Complete this process before submitting a converted section for final approval;
    • Develop a PL conversion communication ⁄ out-reach program. Communicate within your organization, to industry and to other stakeholders, including local agencies that use your specifications, what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. You don't want to get too far down the road with something that ultimately is unacceptable or problematic;
    • Develop or adopt a PL Style Guide;
    • Develop and provide templates and examples for specification writers to follow;
    • Implement training in the use of the PL Style Guide and how to write PL specifications;
    • Begin each specification section with a description that tells the reader what is included in that section so the reader will know whether or not he or she is in the right section or not;
    • As you make changes, be sure you "track" them - maintain version control;
    • Specifications should not include or reiterate permit requirements;
    • Specifications should not include or reiterate government code requirements unless the code specifically requires it;
    • Special or unique specification items should be designated through a special coding structure;
    • Specifications should not reference design or construction manuals;
    • Keep local FHWA representative involved and apprised of progress in converting to PL and otherwise modifying your standard specifications; and
    • If PL conversion results in an unintentional change or ambiguity to the specifications on a specific project, be prepared to issue change orders as a remedy.

    You should convert your Standard Specifications to PL as a whole package and then implement them as a whole package. However, individual technical sections can be revised and implemented as they are converted.

    You may maintain the AASHTO specification format when converting transportation-related specifications to PL. For building construction, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) format is more appropriate. Building work and roadwork projects should be treated as different projects under different specifications.

    There is no consensus on whether materials specifications should be included as subsections under "Construction" or whether a wholly separate "Materials" section would be better. Likewise, there is no consensus as to whether or not testing and inspection should be included as separate subsections under "Construction" or whether a wholly separate "Testing and Inspections" section or a wholly separate QA/QC document would be a better approach.

    If only a conversion to PL is being implemented, a specifications engineer or consultant typically makes the conversion. Technical leads and higher-level committees then review and approve the converted specification prior to implementation. Industry is typically not included in the PL conversion but in the review and approval process. However, if the conversion to PL is being performed in tandem with technical revisions, technical leads and industry should be involved from the very beginning of the conversion process.

    All but one state has at least one or more individuals tasked with writing, or at least providing QA/QC over the specification writing process. In general, technical leads are responsible for technical content with a specification engineer responsible for ensuring PL consistency and format.

    To various degrees, states use consultants to assist in the PL conversion. Consultants may be used to prepare Style Guides, perform the actual conversion of documents to PL, and to train DOT personnel in converting construction documents to PL. To be effective, a consultant must understands the "custom and culture" of the particular state DOT. In deciding to use a consultant, you should first convene all stakeholders to define how a consultant can best serve your needs.

  4. Advertising and Bidding

    There is no reason to modify existing contract advertising or bidding procedures and policies as long as industry is involved in the PL conversion and fully apprised of any technical changes far in advance. Best practices when advertising and bidding PL specifications include:

    • Publishing the converted specifications far in advance of using them in a contract being advertised for bid;
    • When publishing converted specifications, provide a Conversion Guide that indicates the following:
      • Which portions are converted to PL with no change in technical requirements;
      • Which portions are converted to PL and include a change in technical requirements; or
      • Which portions are entirely new to the specifications.
    • Publish specification updates on a regular, well-defined schedule unless emergency situations dictate otherwise. Some states publish updates several times per year, others on an annual or less frequent basis.

    Most states are moving to or have already made the standard specifications available on-line. Some states expressed concern over version control and how to resolve a conflict between an electronic version and a printed version. The consensus is that the printed version in effect at the time of advertisement is the controlling document. The use of a regular schedule for publishing updates greatly facilitates version control.

    Most states are moving to or have already moved to electronic bidding. States are moving towards electronic publication of bidder inquiries and contract addenda on line, as well as minutes from any mandatory pre-bid meetings.

    Bidding and estimating may be affected if the PL conversion included re-definition of bid (pay) items. A redefinition of bid (pay) items is a significant change that must be done carefully as it will affect how a contractor bids a job and how it is paid. It will also affect how historical cost data are used by both contractors and state DOTs. If bid (pay) items are re-defined, a conversion table should be provided. Unique bid (pay) items should be clearly indicated by a coding structure. It is also important to clearly distinguish between lump-sum payment items and final pay quantity items.

  5. Implementation Steps

    The best practices for implementation are:

    • Build widespread support for PL conversion within your organization;
    • Develop a plan and schedule for converting each section;
    • Be flexible, realizing that resource constraints and other priorities may delay conversion of any given section; and
    • Once a specification section is ready for use, consider a pilot program before implementing a section across all projects state-wide.

    There is no consensus on the benefit of running a pilot program. Some states conducted pilot programs, others did not. In making a decision on a pilot program, consider the following points:

    • If industry and stakeholders have been involved in the PL conversion and specification process, there may be no benefit to a pilot program;
    • You may decide to run a pilot program on a select subset of projects. However, note that it may take several years before all parts of any given specification section are truly tested in the field. Even after a successful pilot program, latent issues may emerge;
    • You may want to use old specifications and PL specifications side-by-side to emphasize differences or the lack of differences; and
    • You should use a "Conversion Guide" (see "Advertising and Bidding" above).

    Industry is generally supportive of PL conversion, but becomes increasingly concerned as technical changes and policy changes are wrapped into a PL conversion. Also, while it may make sense for you to make technical improvements to specifications while converting to them to PL, policy changes should be part of a separate process.

  6. Training

    Existing training schedules and formats can easily accommodate training in PL and PL specification conversion. With regard to specific PL training, the best approach is to have a program where key individuals are trained on PL and these trained individuals then lead workshops and training sessions throughout your state. Several states endorse the NHI training course "Principles of Writing Highway Construction Specifications."

    Training on PL and PL conversion should be open and made available to industry and consultants, as well as to the local agencies that use your state DOT specifications.

    There is consensus that web-based training would be quite beneficial, but as yet, none exists. In any event, you would need to modify the training content to be consistent with the Style Guide adopted by your state.

    FHWA set forth that the Transportation Curriculum Coordination Council (TCCC) could be used to develop standards for PL training.

  7. Program Delivery Impacts

    The major risks to delivery of PL specifications are:

    • Lack of a PL conversion strategy and plan;
    • Resource (staffing) constraints;
    • Scope creep;
    • Lack of industry involvement; and
    • Lack of support from highest executive and administrative levels within the state DOT.

    The states that have implemented PL specifications noted an initial apprehensiveness by industry, as would be expected of anything new that has the potential to affect a contractor's profitability. However, because of industry involvement throughout the conversion process, the transition did not have any discernable negative affects on project delivery. It is too early to document the effect of PL documents on claims and the resolution of claims.

  8. Maintaining PL Specifications

    Various formal and informal processes can be used by stakeholders to propose changes to specifications. One state requires a written formal submission of proposals to change the specifications using a standard form, another allows for proposed changes to be made more informally by phone or email. Both states maintain a database or record of the proposed changes and evaluate them based on their merits and overall conformance to policy. If a change has merit and deemed worth making, the best practice is to revise the specification at that time but not immediately issue it for use. Instead, you should issue new versions in batches on a pre-determined schedule, for example, once every six months or once a year, unless an emergency situation exists.

    Various methods of conducting post-project audits and developing formal "lessons learned" exist. Some states require the project participants to prepare post-project reviews and reports. One state uses a committee approach where several individuals not directly involved with the project review the work on a quarterly basis and, at the end of the project, prepare a close-out report. Another state maintains a formal online lessons learned database. However, it may be difficult to distinguish between opinions, one-time errors, or truly a "lesson learned" with universal relevance. Other states distribute lessons learned through regular meetings or written memoranda. However, regardless of how lessons learned were documented, the problem of how to incorporate lessons learned into future projects still remains, and this is a problem that is not yet wholly solved.

  9. Additional Discussions

    Although not part of the formal agenda, the conference participants also discussed the following topics:

    • Digital Terrain Maps (DTM). The participants discussed if and how DTM be made available to bidders and/or successful bidders, although no consensus emerged.
    • Pre-bid Meetings. Pre-bid meetings have advantages. Such meetings provide the opportunity for potential bidders to learn more about the project from the design team, to visit the site, and to ask questions. The disadvantage of mandatory pre-bid meetings is that not all interested bidders may be able to participate.
    • Design-Build Authority. High-value, complex projects may benefit from the DB project delivery method, but, in general, the authority to do so is limited.
    • California's Time-Related Overhead (TRO) specification. Several states expressed interest in California's TRO specifications. The TRO specification requires bidders to set forth a daily overhead rate in the bid, which simplifies the administration of changes that extend the contract duration.
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Updated: 11/26/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000