Is the use of jargon actually standing in the way of progress?

“Transparency.”

“Smart cities.”

“Big data.”

Our world is littered with them. Call them “buzzwords,” call it “jargon,” call it “government speak.” Whatever you call them, it’s clear that people are using words and expressions they don’t fully understand, can’t reliably define, and, what’s worse, won’t even recognize when they actually see them executed properly.

Heck, even the word “data” has become something of an overused, catch-all moniker being applied to virtually anything containing a fact or figure. Is a printout of a spreadsheet, tucked away in the desk drawer of a retired clerk, “data?” Is a crumpled-up, out-of-date map “data?” Is an artifact dug from an archeological site considered to be “data?”

And what makes data “big,” for that matter?

Or consider the concept of “smart cities.” What makes a city “smart?” Sure, there are definitions out there…but can you recite one? Most people can’t—even those clamoring for them (or even part of the conversation, in many instances).

Which brings us to “transparency.” Transparency is a word I’ve been hearing since the 1980s , first in the automotive world, later in the political arena , and now virtually everywhere you turn—including routine business matters with municipalities and school districts. But ask 100 people to define transparency and you’ll get 100 different answers. (I know…I’ve done it!) 

Even our old friend Noah Webster has a difficult time defining transparency: “the quality or state of being transparent.” (Not joking…look it up.) The definition of transparent per Webster is no joy either, the best of eight options being “readily understood.”  So the answer is: “the quality or state of being readily understood?” See the problem?

If we can’t even agree on definitions, how can we come to consensus as to whether we’ve achieved the outcomes we all profess to desire, such as government transparency, smart cities and the public’s understanding of available community data?

The Problem with Jargon

It’s not that they aren’t admirable and worthwhile pursuits, these commitments to transparency, the continued progress toward smarter cities, and providing universal community access to public data. They are. The problem arises when people use buzzwords as a shield from scrutiny or evaluation.

If nobody truly understands the meaning of a noble-sounding aspiration, it becomes easy to pay lip service to abstractions and hide behind actual results. Claims of transparency and “smart-ness” become easier to tout, as an unwitting public is becoming increasingly immune to their effects: We hear the words, we vaguely understand the actions people are making toward the objectives these buzzwords describe, and we assume progress is being made. It’s comforting, in a way.

But what if it’s not?

What if we end up with  the illusion of transparency, but, in reality, too few are actually achieving the intended goals of informing our public, community employees and elected officials?

Consider a hypothetical: An entity commissions a study and produces a 500-page report, then posts a PDF of that report somewhere buried deep within its website. Is this transparency? Is the PDF even data? At 500 pages, it certainly is big…but big data, it is not.

The ultimate danger that the proliferation of over-used and misapplied terminology poses to our communities is that we hear the lip service, we see activity and proposals, we witness claims of accomplishments, and we fall complacent to actually achieving measurable results and meaningful progress toward the vital ends our communities need to achieve—fiscally, scholastically, and politically.

Less Talk, More Walk

As an industry—and as a community—we can do better. As someone who works in the “data” business, I see the opportunities firsthand. We need to better educate our citizens about important initiatives we pursue on their behalf…and clearly report on the progress (or lack thereof) being made. 

Free of jargon. Free of buzzwords. Overflowing with clarity.

Let’s understand what types of information our community is truly interested in seeing, and let’s package those facts and figures in a way that is accessible and relevant to their interests. Let’s hold “Citizen 101” town halls to better educate our friends and neighbors about what they can know about, what they can care about…and what they should stay educated about…and let them tell us what “transparency” truly means to them.

It’s not that the technology isn’t there. We have all the data we need…big and small! And we look at ours daily. The types of information that people most readily click on and download just might surprise those who might be too close to the data to fully appreciate. People, school districts, and government entities may assume they’re offering data that complies with government-issued transparency mandates, and they may assume that that’s enough. But are they truly giving the people what they really care about in their everyday lives? Often not, I suspect.

There’s a standard for this already, to which I reference (and adhere to) often: the Government Accounting Standards Board’s (GASB) litmus test for the quality of data being shared. The six qualitative characteristics, as set forth in GASB’s Concepts Statement No. 1, Objectives of Financial Reporting are:

  • Relevant
  • Reliable
  • Understandable
  • Timely
  • Consistent
  • Comparable

Most of all, let’s make it simple. Let’s resolve—as an industry, as municipalities, as school districts, and as councils of government—to make it easy for elected officials and citizens alike to understand the terminology we use and the solutions we are trying to provide to achieve things like transparency and smart cities. 

An informed public is a powerful public. Let’s leave the buzzwords behind…and move our communities forward.

[To learn the one acceptable buzzword here at Munetrix, please click here.]

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