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Translating Government Gobbledegook

Many times we have left a meeting and discovered everyone on the team interpreted the meeting differently.  It’s as if we all went to a different meeting.   Communicating and understanding effectively is difficult in the best of circumstances.   When you are meeting with public sector officials, the results typically fall into the category of bad circumstances.  In Government, they just speak a different language.   Of course, it’s like that with most things.   

For instance, at home, when my children were infants, my wife would ask – "Do you think we should check on the kids?"  At first I was under the impression this was a yes or no question.  Later, I learned that it wasn’t a question at all.  What she was really saying was - "Please get out of bed and check on the kids." 

Now, imagine if your job in the private sector is to sell to government.  Talk about challenges.   Working your way through what Florida Governor Charlie Crist calls "Government Gobbledegook" can be a full time job.  To overcome the problem the Governor issued an Executive Order in 2007 to adopt plain language plans.   Even the Federal Government has a 10 year old mandate to ensure the use of plain language.   

Still, it’s hard to make heads or tails out of what is being said.  That’s why it’s necessary to have an interpreter available.   Check out these speaking points taken from conversations with some of our nation’s CIOs (followed by the rest of the story):

  • We want to build a more efficient organization.   (as long as I have the same staff and the same budget or less).
  • We believe in competition (as long as I keep my current provider at a lower cost).
  • We are ready to move on this (in about 18 months) 

Learning to understand the language of government is similar to learning to understand your spouse.  Either you invest a lot of years, or you get yourself a translator.   

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    This can be as simple as a single word. How many times have I seen a successful sales person, accustomed to selling the private sector, sit in a government office talking about ROI as “profit” or raving about the benefits of “outsourcing” a service only to watch their hearer tune out. Usually they leave fully confused about why their potential client shut down. Understanding the language and the associated connotation is crucial to being successful in government. The same message with different words can make a world of difference.