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The Government Man and the Plain Language Act

With all of the hoopla about the Plain Language Act, the Government Man thought this would be a perfect opportunity to spread some wisdom and of course hype his own creation. In my book, Confessions of a Government Man, I devote an entire chapter to “Language of Government.” Maybe our lawmakers read it prior to drafting the Act. Here are but a few excerpts.

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The language of a bureaucracy can be the subject of a doctoral thesis. A good bureaucrat is like a good politician in that he can say nothing, yet mean every word of it. Where else but in a bureaucracy can things be “administratively viable,” can a “level of comfort” be a substitute for a downright commitment, can something be “fungible,” or can a tough decision put you “between a rock and a hard place?” The terms “overview” or “broad brush” can generally be construed to mean something between “don’t bother me with the details” or “don’t give me enough information to make me responsible for this decision.” Of course there is always a “strategic reassessment,” a term which can come out of the White House, a failing corporation or the friendly office next door. Regardless of where it originates the meaning is the same. It’s an admission that “we screwed up and we’re finally going to stop throwing good money after bad.” Likewise, when I see a memo which starts with “It has come to my attention,” it usually means somebody messed up and everyone will pay for it.

In high management I learned that to “put a spin” on a news release or presentation meant to lie.

During my career I made a point of noting the colorful use of words. Let’s not confuse those who practice the language of government with those who merely fracture the English language. In my retirement speech I stated my thoughts about a lifetime of negotiating the unique language of the government and politics.

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“I know a few buzzwords which I will now do without, or which will take on a new meaning. There will be no more ‘regional rollouts,’ no ‘dog and pony shows,’ no ‘mandatory training,’ no ‘meat and potatoes,’ except maybe at Outback. I won’t ‘drill down’ and I won’t go ‘into the weeds.’ I won’t ‘protect anyone’s turf’ and ‘equitable adjustment’ (a well worn contracting term) will apply only to my golf handicap.

“There will be no ‘strategic plans’ or ‘pilot programs.’ I’ll never again be encouraged to ‘think out of the box.’ The next time I have ‘too much on my plate,’ will be at the all you can eat buffet and if I say ‘this gives me heartburn,’ it’s time to call the paramedics. Most of all, nobody will care if I don’t ‘sing from the same sheet of music’ or if I ‘fall asleep at the switch.’ You can consider me ‘dead in the water,’ but I will still ‘smell the roses.’”

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I don’t know how many times we’ve had a “flavor of the week” new program for which “the train has left the station.” This means that some organization is about to not admit a mistake and proceed to “stay the course,” no matter how many “rocks in the road.” As a retiree I no longer “wear two hats,” except as a parent and grandparent. “Multi-tasking” means to walk and talk at the same time. Most assuredly I will not be told by a newly appointed arrogant offspring of a party contributor, with six months of prior work experience in daddy’s business, that it “will no longer be business as usual,” we must be “proactive, not reactive,” or that we will “hit the ground running” on another ill-advised and doomed to failure initiative. I will not be ordered to “reinvent” myself, to initiate a “culture change,” to rid the organization of a “stovepipe mentality” or to pass anyone’s “litmus test.” Careerists are well aware of how to “step up to the plate,” when it’s “our turn in the barrel.” We “close all loops,” and “put out fires,” all without “stealing anyone’s thunder.” If it makes sense we “run it up the flagpole.”

I recall a single conversation in which I heard expressions like “polite but not offensive,” “sympathetic to its value,” “parameters of reasonability,” “clearify the issue,” “equitable person” (you figure that one out) and ending with “and henceforth thereafter.”

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Is it mandatory to use as many acronyms as possible? These are supposed to be memory joggers but more often than not the program derives its name from a suitable acronym. From my GSA days I recall terms like TOAST (The Occupancy Agreement Service Tool), FAMIS (Federal Acquisition Management Information System), MARS (Management Analysis Review System), STAR (System for Tracking and Administering Real Property) or SOLAR (Storehouse of On-line Adaptive Reports)? Certain words are all over a bureaucracy, thus we had IOS (Integrated Occupancy Services), IS (Integrated Solutions), CIFM (Computer Integrated Facility Management), SDI (Spatial Data Integrity) or my favorite, STRIDE (Systematically Tiered Regionally Integrated Data Environment).To make a point about misleading acronyms, in the book I discussed a disastrous BARPH (Better Accounting of Real Property Holdings) initiative.

Plain language. It’s time has come.

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I will post more silliness excerpted from the book from time to time. For more information about myself or my book please check out my website, http://www.thegovernmentman.com. For a look inside go to Amazon.com or your favorite online supplier. I can be reached at [email protected].

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Stephanie Slade

Fun read. Of course, our recent plain writing debate (which was covered in the Washington Post’s Federal Buzz last Friday) proves there’s two sides to any issue. Many agree with you that the time has come for govies to learn to communicate in everyday English, but there are those who argue we use acronyms and jargon for a reason. It allows for a quicker, more precise exchange of information.

Jeff Ribeira

Great examples, and I love the way you have incorporated them into your narrative. A great companion piece to the discussion that Stephanie just shared: there’s more to implementing plain language than simply completely using layman’s terms 100% of the time. Acronyms though…now that’s a whole other can of worms.

Alan L. Greenberg

I don’t disagree with Stephanie. I’m not against acronyms. I was merely spoofing the fact that sometimes the names of programs are tailored to fit a suitable acronym.

Carol Davison

Communicating in plain language is hard than you think. For example we were referring to internal and external customers. I said I thought we should just say HR operations, policy (which really is a reference to the HR strategy offices), the Bureaus we service, OPM and OMB. Others thought we should define what internal and external meant. That fine, as long as all the others teams use the same defination. I doubt they will. I thought OPM and OMB were regulatory bodies and not customers at all. See how confusing it can be even when all are trying to do the right thing?