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CPUC GHG OIR PHC (and other acronyms)

by Whitney Ramos, SF2011

There is an email in my inbox with the subject “CPUC GHG OIR PHC.” Within the context of my office at the SFPUC (that’s the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) I know that the email is about the California Public Utilities Commission’s Greenhouse Gas Order to Institute a Rulemaking, Pre-hearing Conference. The only people that I would expect to recognize this full acronym are those doing work related to this specific Rulemaking proceeding. It may seem over the top, but using 13 letter acronyms within small groups is better than having to say/type all eleven words each time one refers to the subject.

Not surprisingly, acronyms within the energy world overlap. “PUC” comes up a lot in my work. Depending on who says it or where it is written, PUC could mean the SFPUC, the CPUC, or the Public Utilities Code. Like the “PU” in this example, names (of organizations, documents, etc) within an industry repeat the same words a lot. This can cause brief misunderstandings. Yet, except some minor confusion of which Commission is being referenced, this repetition has not affected my work.

The more common time that acronyms get confusing are when people from different departments are discussing an issue. Each person approaches the subject from their own professional worldview. While I look at issue A and consider the regulatory impacts, a risk management employee looks at issue A and considers the potential liabilities. This is how it is supposed to be (in a technical sense, not in a grand moralistic sense). It is the result of specialization; if we each focus on a narrow topic we can learn more as a whole than if we all learn about all topics.

The challenge is that acronyms represent more than just the literal words they stand for. Everyday words can have specific and technical meanings in a professional context. Acronyms also demonstrate how constrained our thinking can be. We may automatically throw out these acronyms in a setting when listeners have no reason to know what they mean. There are times when I’ll be in a meeting with someone from a different department, whose daily context is (for example) Assurance and Internal Controls. They say “ICs” a few times before I know that it stands for Internal Controls. And even once I know what it stands for, I don’t know what the precise definition is in the context of the Assurance and Internal Controls professional framework.

The nine of us occasionally throw out acronyms in the City Hall Fellows Civic Leadership Development Program sessions (CHF’s CLDPs). I think it’s a good sign that we’re all so involved in our departments that we speak like insiders. One must then also be conscious of clarifying what acronyms mean, and be knowledgeable enough to comprehensively articulate these explanations. In my experience this year the Fellows have been able to do each of these successfully. This has allowed to me learn not just about Power acronyms, but also the meaning of SSIP (Sewer System Improvement Program) and COMPSTAT (which stands for Computer Statistics, but refers to a Police Department effort and bi-monthly meeting).

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