Language shows world-view shift in federal IT

Remember ADP? What veteran of the federal computing scene doesn't?

For the benefit of newbies, in federal parlance, ADP was not the name of the company founded by now-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that does payroll processing for businesses. Rather, it stood for "automatic data processing," and it remained governmentese for computers and computer technology long after the commercial world started to use the phrase "information technology" and its abbreviation "IT."

What was the significance of the fact that the government kept its own special initials ADP for so long? And what is the significance of the fact that the initials gradually began to disappear in favor of the ones used by the rest of the world? Hint: The change began around 1993.

I stand in awe—if that's the right word—that I've been alive long enough to have witnessed the development of new ways of expressing oneself in everyday American English. I'm not referring to words to describe new phenomena or to slang or jargon, but to phrases made up of old words put together or used in contexts in ways people simply did not used to do, say, 30 years ago. Examples include "don't go there," "get over it," "don't even think about it," "piece of work," and even the word "hello" pronounced so as to suggest that the person to whom you're speaking "just doesn't get it" (which also is another new expression).

I recently read an old organizational theory essay called "The Language of Organizations: the Case of the Navy," by Roger Everud. It discusses slang, acronyms and special expressions in the Navy, as well as the language people share in organizations.

What is the significance of special words and expressions that people within organizations have? The most obvious, and therefore the least interesting, is that an organization's jargon represents an efficient communications shortcut for phenomena with no ready counterpart outside the organization. An organization's words also create a sense of internal cohesion, a "we-ness" that distinguishes insiders from outsiders.

But Everud's also observes that an organization's private language provides insights into "the world view of the group." Then he continues: "Organizational change necessitates a language change. Organizations only really change when there are concomitant changes in the words, symbols and metaphors of an organization."

Now back to ADP and IT. When I entered the government in 1993, I very consciously, in all my speeches and statements, used the expression "customer" to describe the federal buyer, as in "the government customer." I saw this as part of the reinventing government effort. At the time, the phrase was not in common usage. People sometimes talked about federal "buyers," but most commonly people just referred to "the government."

I was trying to get across two messages. First, the government and its vendors were engaged in a business relationship similar to relationships in the commercial world between suppliers and customers. Second, in our free-market system, satisfying the customer is, or should be, the key to business success—rather than the ability to write a good proposal or to win a lawsuit. I was trying to say: "Let's move towards a more commercial system based around the idea that vendors win business through customer satisfaction."

When I entered the government, the switch from ADP to IT was just getting started and was being promoted by the then-National Performance Review. It reflected a similar shift in world view. "ADP" was a government-unique term, reflecting the idea that the world of computer technology in government was not the same as in the commercial world. When people started talking about IT, it reflected a new world view that government was moving closer to how technology was bought and used in corporate America.

Other new phrases in our vocabulary: The government has imported the phrases "seat management" and "due diligence" from commercial IT practice.

Taken together, those new words represent a real shift in world view and a real enabler of organizational change. Government organizations have missions that can't, and should not, be reflected simply by a corporate-style bottom line. In that very important sense, government remains, and should remain, unique. But managing the business side of those missions, including the technologies for delivering better customer service, in a more businesslike way will help us better attain those mission benefits that are so important.

--Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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