02 March 2016

The persistence of uncommunication in government #nlpoli

For some interesting insights into the way government works, take a look at an access to information request someone submitted for documents related to the bond ratings for the province issued earlier this year.

First, notice that the department responsible for openness and transparency continues to follow the decidedly closed and opaque practice of printing electronic documents,  scanning them, and then posting a picture of the document.  This makes it harder to find information in the documents and use it and of course that is precisely the intent of the practice.

Second, notice the enormous amount of effort spent by finance department officials to obtain comparative credit ratings for other provinces and for Newfoundland and Labrador over time.  It’s a relatively meaningless piece of information but it sucked up an astonishingly large amount of email traffic.

Third, look at the back and forth among the communications people,  the deputy minister, and the finance minister on the releases.  The folks in the Premier’s Office get in on the act as well since there’s a quote from Dwight Ball in the release.

This is where it starts to get interesting.

Right off the bat, you can see that the Ball quote is a good example of bad writing. It is windy to the point of being flatulent.  That’s right:  it stinks.

The first sentence of the quote is a monster:
Our province is facing a difficult fiscal reality, one that was not created over-night and will require focus, collaboration, long-term planning and a commitment to sustainability.
It’s actually three separate sentences.  They are linked by a comma and the word “and” because the people who wrote it and approved it just didn’t know any better.   The writer made no effort to make the sentence construction match up grammatically. These folks just bashed a bunch of things together with the equivalent of tape, spit, and hope.  The result is a classic pile of government word-goo that says absolutely nothing other than testify to the appalling state of our province’s education system.

“Difficult fiscal reality” is one of those typical government phrases that grows out of the belief that the more syllables you use, the smarter you sound.   Normal people do not speak that way.  Normal people long ago tuned out right about there,  if they read this far into the news release in the first place.  That’s the hard truth of communication.

Just to make it clear how hard it is for someone to understand this sentence, consider that it has a Flesch reading ease score of about 25.  The way that scoring system words,  the bigger the score , the easier a sentence is to read. The top of the scale – that is, the easiest sentence to read – would score 100.  This sentence scored in the lowest quarter for ease of reading.

To appreciate that the sentence doesn’t say anything, break it down into three bits:  the first bit ends after reality.  The second bit ends after over-night.  The third bit is the section that starts “and will require focus.”

If you wrote the whole thing as three sentences,  the word “it” would actually go before the word “will” to stand in for “difficult fiscal reality.”  So let’s write the last bit of the sentence on it’s own.  For good measure, we will put in the serial comma where it belongs.
The difficult fiscal reality will require focus, collaboration, long-term planning, and a commitment to sustainability.
Even if you can pick sense in that, something is missing.

What are we doing with the difficult fiscal reality?  Are we planning to sustain it?  Either something goes after “sustainability” to explain what focus, collaboration, and long-term planning will accomplish, or we have to put some other words at the front like “Overcoming the difficult fiscal reality….”

Incomplete sentence = Incomplete thought

Fuzzy sentences = fuzzy thinking

Part of the problem with this big quote is that someone decided to cram no fewer than six separate ideas into one gigantic paragraph:
  • One:  Our province is facing a difficult fiscal reality, one that was not created overnight and will require focus, collaboration, and long-term planning to correct. 
  • Two:  Our government is working hard to ensure we rise to this challenge and face it head on.
  • Three:  Protecting our credit ratings is paramount in this process.
  • Four:  We are facing the same pressures that ‎several other provinces are also dealing with when it comes to the significant fall in the price of oil.
  • Five:  But it’s important to remember that when oil was averaging over $100 a barrel, this province had a deficit problem and no long-term plan for economic sustainability.
  • Six: we are going to do that plan an sustainability thing, whatever that is.
Either of those would be enough to carry the paragraph alone,  with some supporting statements.  Cram all five of them together and you get a mess.

There was a seventh idea in the one paragraph, if you can get your head around that concept.  In the original draft, the last sentence was actually pretty good.  The original wording was the one statement of clear intent:
This has brought the province to a critical juncture and real action must be taken.
Okay, so the sentence is written in that classically government passive voice where no one actually takes responsibility for doing anything. But it has promise.   “Real action must be taken” does have the value, though of being a firm clutch of words. 

You could easily turn it into a strong phrase:
At this critical moment in our history,  we will act to give the people of our province the security they deserve.
So what did the folks in the Premier’s Office do with that sentence? 

You are likely on the edge of your seats.

Be careful you don’t slip on the floor.
This has brought the province to a critical juncture and we will work with stakeholders and the people of the province to implement ‎short, medium and long-term measures to correct the course.

Warned ya.

If you could solve the deficit with bad writing,  the average government news release in Newfoundland and Labrador would be like having oil at a thousand bucks a barrel.  This one paragraph alone could solve the province’s debt and deficit with money left over. We are not talking small change either.  You could probably take everybody in the province on a junket to Florida with the money you'd have left after you paid all the bills.  That’s how bad that paragraph was after all the re-writing and approvals.

Bad writing is a sign of the problem, though, not the problem itself.

The problem is the way people think.

Change the way people think and you will change the way they act.

Actions always speak louder and more honestly than words.