Note to government: Start talking like everybody else!

Steve Kelman takes issue with jargon that serves mainly to create artificial distinctions from the private sector.

Image: Shutterstock / CloudyStock

While interviewing Christian Moscardi, the civic tech intern who transferred to full-time employment at the Census Bureau, for my recent blog post, I asked whether he had come across any other employees at Census while on his internship who, like him, were data scientists. Yes, there were, he replied, but Census doesn’t call them that. They are called “mathematical statisticians” instead.

Without knowing it, Moscardi had pushed a hot button of mine. For many common terms the world uses, the government has developed government-unique versions.

The hot button initially got pushed when I joined the government in 1993. Dealing with IT as part of my job, I soon came on the government term to describe this, “ADP,” meaning “automatic data processing.” During my four years in the government, this was gradually replaced by yet another government-unique term, “IRM,” for information resources management. 

Around the same time in government, I first heard the word “personnelist” to describe someone in HR. Also while in the government, I came across my least-favorite example of govspeak, the word “vacancy” to describe a job opening and “vacancy announcement” to describe a job posting. And after leaving the government, I encountered the acronym “COR” (contracting officer’s representative) to describe somebody working on managing contracts after award.

What is wrong with all these words? It’s true that every profession has jargon, so I have little problem with government’s use of acronyms or of words describing something unique to government, as is often the case in the military or the intelligence community. What I object to is terms developed just for government to describe concepts already in general usage outside government.

Many of these words reek of bureaucracy. At best, such bureaucratic phrases come over like a boring lead balloon, what President Donald Trump calls “low-energy.” They are alienating, separating people from our government. At worst, they are dehumanizing and disdainful. Finally, they encourage folks in the government to conceive of what they do as being more distinct from what ordinary people do in their jobs than it in fact often is. This, in turn, can dissuade govvies from getting and applying good ideas from outside government.

As I said, I am particularly offended by “vacancy.” Ugh. If there is a “vacancy,” it suggests that, as at a hotel, it can a filled interchangeably, by most anybody who shows up. The word shows disdain, even contempt, for federal employees and the work they do.

As for the COR acronym, it is true that this job is government-unique -- at least in the form it takes in government, where it is different from private-sector contract management. (The private-sector role rarely gets a separate kind of job classification).

The real problem is its bureaucratic whiff. Talk about low energy -- can you imagine a more boring, uninspiring description of this job? Who would want to tell their mom how proud they are to be a contracting officer’s representative? What about a term that is both more descriptive and more motivating, such as “contract performance manager”?

The government sometimes eventually learns to do a better job. Jeffrey Neal, who was chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama years, told me that the only people these days who use the word “personnelists” are over 60. Among younger people, mainstream expressions such as HR are the default. And eventually, ADP and IRM gave way for IT, although the association AFFIRM still harkens back to those days of yesteryear -- with the good excuse that their acronym is a fortunate one. (And my friend Chris Dorobek notes that the State Department’s IT shop is still called the Office of Information Resources Management.)

Can we do something to prune these weeds from government? The excellent Margaret Weichart (deputy director for management at OMB, and now acting director at the Office of Personnel Management), can you help?

Note: This piece was updated on Nov. 29 to correct the name of former DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Jeffrey Neal.

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