Plain Language In Government

It’s a funny thing when government and politics get tangled up. Funny in an, “omigod, are these people adults or just seven-year-olds in suits,” kind of way. (Source: I live in the United States.)

Political leanings aside, these folks aren’t seven-year-olds. They are men and women who run the country. All of them have advanced degrees, extremely successful backgrounds, or the ability to successfully represent tens of thousands of their neighbors concerns and needs. They aren’t dumb people. So why is there such a disconnect on what should be a pretty basic point? The point I’m talking about is the debt ceiling. (Full disclosure: I am poor at maths, and poorer at financial maths.) This article from USA Today perfectly encapsulates the difference:

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., even argues that reaching the debt limit could help the economy, by showing the world the U.S. is serious about its debt problem. “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets,” he told The Washington Post Monday.

Versus

Veronique de Rugy, an economist at the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said …”I do not believe that past Oct. 17 the country’s going to hell,” she said. “But I agree that failing to pay interest on our debt has very serious consequences.”

Is breaching the debt ceiling a good thing or a bad thing? This shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. And lest you think this is just a politician bashing post, it’s not just them, it’s us, too:

A new Pew Research Center poll shows a majority of Republicans and many independents are just fine with the idea of not raising the debt limit by the Treasury Department’s deadline of Oct. 17.

Slightly more than half of Americans — 51 percent — say it is essential to raise the debt ceiling to avoid an economic crisis. That’s slightly more than the 47 percent of Americans who said the same last week.

There is a huge partisan split on this questions, with 37 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats in the new poll believing there would be an economic crisis.

But it’s not just this topic. The difference between Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act should be, well, nothing, but thanks to Jimmy Kimmel, we see there is confusion even there:

I have a theory of why this is. Our politicians are getting very good at branding. And they brand everything: the PATRIOT Act, Obamacare, the Help America Vote Act. Each is named to conjure specific images, particular feelings that are fanned and encouraged by the particular cable news channel viewers they are intending to reach. They are intended to sow discord and side-taking. Which inevitably leads to confusion.

So what can we, as career government communicators, do about this state of affairs? Plain language. We might not be able to rename that thing in the news, but if people understood where we were coming from, and who we were and what our job was, think of the confusion we could avoid. Heading back to our original area of confusion, there are already calls for the Fed and the presumed new Chief to do a better job explaining what they do:

Since 2010, when Congress pivoted first to deficit reduction and then to gridlock, the only large, influential institution in Washington focusing on reducing unemployment and getting this tepid recovery up to speed has been the Federal Reserve. Yet the beneficiaries of those actions know very little about them. Outsiders like myself can help, but it will take a commitment by the Fed itself to really change that.

Do the people you work to help know what you do? Or are they swayed by political, divisive, rancorous names and cable news fights?