graphic designer who works in television had no idea what her good friend of 15 years-a Bureau of Labor Statistics employee-did at his job. It wasn't that he'd never told her. He said he conducted research on automobiles, evaluated methodologies and interfaced.
But all his jargon made her head spin.
"The importance of his work was lost on me," she says. "It seemed like it was so much blah, blah, blah. If he had explained what he did in plain English, that might have been more interesting. But to just say, 'I work for the Bureau of Labor Statistics,' I was half asleep already."
An Energy Department official saw his cousin's eyes glaze as the official tried to explain his work. "You're wasting our dollars," said the cousin when he came to. Had the official said, "I make sure no nuclear toxins are dumped into your back yard," he might have gotten a more enthusiastic response.
When government workers toss off acronyms, abbreviations and other jargon, people duck and miss the point. The way many federal workers talk sounds like gibberish to outsiders.
If you think that doesn't matter, consider this: A study conducted in 1995 by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that most Americans don't trust the government. Another survey, done by the Council for Excellence in Government last year, showed that the American public had less confidence in the federal government than in the national media.
It's clear that Americans are weary of grumpy, indifferent bureaucrats who speak an unintelligible language, give convoluted instructions and write incomprehensible regulations.
For once, federal workers would do well to follow the example set by career politicians. Politicians excel at communicating with the public. "On the whole, politicians know not to put jargon into speeches," says John Heritage, a UCLA sociology professor who studies political speeches. "Nothing will lose the public more easily [than jargon]. You've got to speak at the level of simplicity of, say, USA Today."
Communicating clearly rather than in government-speak is not a new idea in the federal sector. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter called on agencies to write government regulations in plain English. But until the National Performance Review focused on improved customer service, many federal managers had given little thought to clearing out verbal garbage.
There's lots of work to be done. Communication consultants agree: If the federal government is to reconnect with its citizens, federal employees need to learn how to speak to the public clearly, write federal regulations using language agency-outsiders can understand, and explain what it is, exactly, that they do. Some agencies are hiring trainers to teach their employees these skills.
Why Bureaucrats Love Jargon
The Random House College Dictionary defines jargon in the following way: "1. the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession or group. 2. unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish."
If jargon can be unintelligible, why do so many public employees rely on it?
When you're talking to the right people, jargon can be the most efficient way to communicate, says Bob Ashby, deputy assistant to the general counsel for regulation and enforcement at the Transportation Department. Technical experts often spend most of their working hours talking to others in similar jobs and "develop their own private language," says Ashby. "What seems like incomprehensible jargon for people in the outside is a convenient shorthand when talking to each other."
"You don't want to say 'Evidential Breath Testing Device' every time," says Ashby, "so you say EBT."
Some federal employees use jargon because they are afraid that stating something outright will get them in trouble. "There is a lot of pressure on you to be precise, so your words aren't turned around by somebody who wants to get away with something," says a Food and Drug Administration manager.
Other employees fear that if they speak in plain English, they will be taken for an outsider. After all, everyone who works for an agency is expected to learn the agency's jargon.
Jargon obscures the speaker's meaning, and there are times when agencies want to be obscure.
In some cases, the agency's mission requires employees to maintain a professional distance from the public. Staff at federal regulatory agencies, for example, want to maintain distance when telling the companies they regulate what they can and cannot do. "There is always a combination of politeness and neutrality and wishing not to offend and wanting to sound objective, detached and professional [that leads to the use of jargon]," Ashby says.
In other cases, "there is a desire to diffuse responsibility," Ashby says. "That's why you have the classic use of passive voice in sentences to avoid having to state who is saying something."
Fudging and mumbling may be a perfectly respectable technique for handling difficult policy or political decisions. But most government employees jabber in lingo even when they don't have anything to hide. Vague speech is usually the result of shoddy thinking and sloppy writing.
"People aren't used to shifting gears required to communicate clearly to the public," says Thomas Murawski, president of The Murawski Group, a Colorado Springs, Colo., based company that trains government and corporate workers to communicate clearly. "You've got to think about your audience," he says. When people speak in jargon, they are not putting themselves in their listeners' shoes. They are not thinking: What does this person want to know? How can I best explain what I do or what services I offer so that they'll understand?
For many federal employees, shifting gears means changing the way they write as well as speak.
Writing Rules in English
"Jargon will do damage to the writing, content, organization and wording of a regulation," says Murawski. "If [federal employees] are not writing for readers, they won't think about what other readers need to know, they'll just write for other experts." Federal regulation writers should avoid using words non-expert readers won't understand, filling regulations with information that only government officials need to know and structuring rules so that only regulators can follow the ideas, he says.
The Murawski Group trains government employees to write regulations in plain English. To force writers to figure out what they mean, Murawski gets agencies to write regulations in a question and answer format.
Murawski provides a draft regulation from the General Accounting Office as an example of a "Q and A" format regulation. Its chapter on annual leave begins with two questions: "What is annual leave and who is eligible to earn it? As a full-time employee, how much annual leave do I earn?"
The answers are simple, clear and direct .
The word "you" appears repeatedly throughout the document. "That's the most important word in the regulation," Murawski says. "With that word, the writer has a fix on their reader and they can aim their words at an identifiable audience. Now, most regulations are written 'to whom it may concern' in a vague, passive voice. Such and such will be done."
The GAO regulation is so reader-friendly it's hard to believe it's legal. But it is.
Annetta Cheek, a regulatory writer with the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, took Murawski's writing course and likes this new approach. Writers think about what industry needs to know. Readers know what they are supposed to do. Compliance is up. And the Bureau of Land Management's phones don't ring off the hook with questions.
Cheek believes writing in plain English is "the most important thing the federal government can do to win back the trust of the American people." Yet she acknowledges that letting go of tradition is hard. "I've written regs for years," says Cheek. "They were written in passive form, with big sentences having multiple clauses. It's almost an art form. Of course, nobody could read these things. But it was lovely. Like music."
Despite its aesthetics, governmentese sends the wrong message to the public. "There was a subtext that said the federal government is a closed community, a club, a society. . . . That we have the power and responsibility and we are telling you what to do," says Cheek. "With plain English, you pull the reader in and show willingness to share responsibility."
Cheek has noticed that writing in plain English is helping her speak more clearly, too. "Something goes off in my mind saying, 'Am I letting words flow off my tongue as I used to when I wrote? Or am I trying to communicate in a straightforward manner?' " she says. "I'm realizing I need to speak in the same way. Awareness is the first step."
The Drone Zone
While some federal managers plug away at clarifying their agencies' muddled documents, others are learning to portray their jobs with more pizazz and enthusiasm.
If government is to truly reinvent itself, employees must sound excited, passionate and hopeful about their jobs, says Joan Keston, president of Public Employees Roundtable, a group that informs the public about what federal employees do and how they affect the quality of life in the United States.
The point Keston tries to get across when she conducts focus groups with public employees is this: Droning on about your job just won't do. She asks federal workers to describe what they do. "I then say, 'Does that sound like it's worth the tax dollars?'" says Keston.
"Most say no," she says. "I listened to a woman from the Environmental Protection Agency put me to sleep while she explained in 10 minutes her job. I told her that I'd say, 'I work on trying to keep rivers and streams clear of pollutants.' Then I asked her, 'Would that describe the goal?' She said, 'Absolutely, why don't I do that?' Government employees are so careful to be precise. . . . It's as if they are having an audit of their job when they describe it, rather than just a friendly chat."
Some federal jobs are inherently interesting. "The Difference You Make," a 29-minute film produced by Public Employees Roundtable, shows federal employees doing exciting things-busting cocaine dealers, teaching people in wheelchairs to play tennis, halting epidemics that kill cattle, hiking with environmentalists in the Grand Canyon. Who wouldn't love hearing about these jobs?
But even the most mundane job can be spiced up.
Bob Sommers, president of Sommers Communications Inc., a company that conducts customer service training seminars, tells how his grandfather described his job of making metal caps for space ships at McDonnell Douglas: "He'd tell me, 'I take metal and put it on the capsule which you see on TV, so when it comes back to earth the astronauts don't burn to a crisp.' I thought, wow, that's cool. I told all my friends."
Of course, expressing enthusiasm about a federal job accomplishes little if the speaker uses terms the general public doesn't understand.
In "The Difference You Make," a telecommunications specialist who works for the Secretary of Defense describes her job. She says: "We are now involved with putting in car and telephone work for [the Secretary of Defense]. . . . We also work with his DASDs which are the people who make him work and tick. We override all of the troubleshooting calls for the Secretary of Defense, which I think is fantastic."
So might everyone else, if they knew what she was talking about.
"People need to understand what we do. . . if we want to break down alienation between the public and government," Keston says. "This way, when people decide they want to add or eliminate a program, they have an idea of what they are weighing."
Agencies are discovering that improving their communication skills can make a real difference in the way they are viewed by the public. Take the U.S. Postal Service, for example.
In recent years, the USPS has been the butt of endless jokes about lousy service and apathetic employees. But in 1995, customer satisfaction with the agency increased by 13 percent-more than customer satisfaction increased at any other government agency or private-sector company. What's behind the Postal Service's improving reputation?
"[Postmaster General] Marvin Runyon came in and said, 'Look, I don't want you citing the regulations when you talk to the public,' " says Dan Curtis, a long-time postal employee who is now with the National Performance Review. "He said, 'You explain to them what the regulations mean.' "
So the Postal Service hired Sommers Communications to design and conduct a customer service training program for postal employees.
"We knew that postal workers had a long way to go," Sommers says. "It wasn't just a matter of changing behavior. The biggest focus was to touch people's hearts. We needed to have them laugh and cry and feel what customers feel."
Sommers brought in motivational speakers to help postal workers understand their customers' perspective. During workshops, employees were asked: Have you ever done errands with kids, stood in long lines, felt bewildered by jargon from a different profession? What do all those things feel like?
"We talked a lot about vocabulary," Sommers says. "[We] made them see how foolish it sounded when someone didn't use their language."
In one exercise, a trainer quacked like a duck whenever the person to which he was talking slipped into jargon. In another, employees who spoke about their jobs got booed every time they used an "insider" term. "The lesson is," Sommers says, "don't speak your culture when you are outside your culture."
Instead of answering the phone with the station name-the technical term for some postal office buildings -Sommers urged employees to just say "post office." Otherwise, callers would hang up thinking they dialed the wrong number. "As long as a customer understands that this is the post office, that is your focus," he says.
USPS employees are not the only ones learning to speak and write clearly. At many agencies, workers are receiving training that helps them talk to the public.
Back to the People
Much of this training has been inspired by President Clinton's 1993 executive order on customer service. Clinton ordered every agency to survey customers to see what kinds of services people want and then set customer service standards so that the public will know what to expect. He told each federal agency to consider customers' needs as a priority in any restructuring effort.
"The first reaction [to the order] was, 'I don't have any customers,' " says Candy Kane, a staffer at the National Performance Review. "Or, 'my customer is my boss, the Congress.' We said, 'Take a step back and think about what services you provide, use that as a means to identify customers."
In 1994, three agencies had customer service standards in place. That number rose to 214 in 1995.
The standards are listed in NPR's 1995 report, Putting Customers First. Many include pledges to deliver services in plain English.
"You will be given forms that are easy to understand and complete," promises the Department of Agriculture's Service Center. The Bureau of Reclamation claims, "We will use language that our customers can easily understand."
The NPR report declares that putting customers first is a "big U-turn to head government back to the people." Once employees who have been trained to mindlessly follow rules put themselves in the shoes of their customers, the report says, they'll provide better service.
And that's not all they'll be able to do. Speaking personally, honestly and openly to the public and writing reader-friendly documents will help federal employees convince citizens that what the government is doing is worth their support and their taxes.