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Famous Last Words, 2006.

The Resource Shelf had an entry about “Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2006”, truthiness. This word is not new as it was voted the 2005 word of the year by the American Dialect Society.

My favorite new word for 2006 came from my work (I work for an aerospace company on a big defense program). A year-end communication from Program Management cautioned us to be wary of mosiacing our presentation content (read: Power Points) prior releasing them to the public. That is, we can’t just re-use content that had already been approved for public release; rather, anything and everything must be submitted to a public release process.

Mosiacing? Was April Fools day coming in December? At my first reading, and after I stopped laughing, I tried to make sense of what mosiacing was and what the authors of the memo had against using plain speech in their communication –instead of introducing this strange, unfamiliar word for a simple concept. I also wasn’t sure if they spelled mosiacing correctly. Could they mean mosaicing, with the “i” and the “a” reversed? And were they borrowing, re-purposing, a word used in a different context (in this case, art and design –as far as I can tell). And does the use of such a word help clarify the meaning of what they’re trying to say? Who knows. I doubt even the authors of the memo even know. The expressionationing of my truthiness over my confusionation to my management was high over their use of mosaicing. The use of the word mosaicing applied to public release of information also cannot be clarified by simple googling (another top word in 2006 according to M-W this year).

It seems making things ‘clear’ or to ‘clarify’ something is a recurring goal for governments, corporations, and big defense programs (my program spends over 3 billion a year). I come across statements about clarifying or making clear something very often in my work. In fact, my work is all about making things clear: I am a policy analyst and deal primarily with Department of Defense IT and information management policies. I read the policy documents (memorandum, DOD Instructions, Directives, etc.) and try to make clear to my managers what is important of those policies in relation to our program.

We strive for clarity: work statements have the word ‘clarity’ appearing often enough to be elevated to the status of a ‘power word’ –its concept has importance but no ‘clear’ way to attain it. It seems that just by saying we’re going to be clear, or say we intend to strive for clarity (suggesting that things are currently unclear and not moving toward clarity), we’ll somehow arrive at it, becoming, perhaps, a CMMI Level 5 of Clarity Maturity Organization (that’s a joke; there is no CMMI for Clarity that I know of).

Stating a goal of clarity but then getting the opposite result seems typical in all bureaucracies (government, corporate, and that weird hybrid, defense programs). I confess i have made statements like ‘we need to clarify the refinement of requirements’ or ‘our architectures are made to clarify user needs’ in my email and presentations. The 2006 report on government responses and preparation for Katrina, “Failure of Initiative” has a lot to say about clarity in language and intentions between government to government, and government to citizen.

Are we hopeless? I don’t think so. PlainLanguage.gov , started around 1994-95, defines ‘Plain Language’ as

Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:
• Find what they need;
• Understand what they find; and
• Use what they find to meet their needs.

In the world of digital government information, the kind I use and enjoy, I seem to get at all three of these bullet points: when I find what I need, it’s usually understandable and it usually meets my needs. In the corporate experiences I’ve had, the opposite is true. As corporations do more work in place of government (literally, doing the work of government for a fee), can initiatives like PlainLanguage.gov help? Perhaps. Certainly, a resource like it take us a long way.

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