Crist signs order to increase government transparency
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 3, 2007
TALLAHASSEE — Stumped by government jargon on the campaign trail, Gov. Charlie Crist used his first full day in office Wednesday to target the dense language of bureaucrats and policy wonks.
He signed an executive order giving state agencies until April 3 to adopt “plain language plans” requiring the use of “clear language that is commonly used by the intended audience.”
Crist hates how the bureaucracy sounds sometimes.
“Government gobbledygook,” he calls it.
Under Wednesday’s directive, the details of agency policy must be presented in a logical sequence, with short declarative sentences “that make it clear who is responsible for what,” the order states.
The order was a follow-up to a theme of his inaugural address on Tuesday.
“You hear people throw out these acronyms,” Crist said. “It’s very difficult to understand, and I’ve always sort of had this sense that there’s an arrogance about that.”
Crist, who has been accused of lacking a mastery of policy details, knows what acronym-deficiency feels like.
At a campaign stop in Jacksonville in September, when he was asked about the level of state support for public schools, he stared blankly at a reporter who used a basic education acronym.
“RLE? What’s RLE?” Crist, a former commissioner of education, asked a reporter wearily.
RLE stands for required local effort, the amount of money each school district must contribute each year toward the cost of operating its schools. The money goes into a huge statewide fund known as the FEFP (that stands for Florida Education Finance Program).
To education bureaucrats, school lobbyists and legislators, it’s as simple as A-B-C.
“Of course I do” remember that RLE moment, Crist said. “Talk to me in English.”
The executive order Crist issued Wednesday also deals with openness and ethics in government.
A code of ethics will prohibit all employees of the governor’s office, and top-level executive branch employees, from accepting anything of value from lobbyists, not just those employees covered under a year-old gift ban.
The code of ethics also limits those employees from accepting anything of value worth more than $25 from a non-lobbyist.
Crist’s order includes a code of personal responsibility that applies to all employees in his office. Agency secretaries must attend training seminars on ethics, public records and open meeting requirements.
“The government belongs to the people,” Crist said.
His initiative on plain language is part of a broader movement that has been under way in the federal government, and elsewhere, for years. President Clinton issued a Memorandum on Plain Language in Government Writing, with guidelines, in 1998, and the federal government has a Web site devoted to the issue (plainlanguage.gov).
Earlier this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued new rules requiring that public companies adopt plain language standards in reporting the compensation packages of top executives. In 2005, California’s state courts rewrote thousands of pages of criminal code to simplify the legal jargon.
Ron Sachs, a public relations executive who was Gov. Lawton Chiles’ chief of communications, said Crist is on the right track. He said state government can’t be accessible if it’s not understandable.
“Bureaucrats understand one another,” Sachs said. “The problem is, the language is coma-inducing to the public.”
Sachs recalled a time when he worked for the state, and an agency set up a group to create a legal definition of domestic violence. The group’s name was “The Minimum Standards for Batterers Commission.”
Crist’s keep-it-simple directive comes at a time when the state spends more and more money each year on communications.
Agencies have communications directors, press secretaries and public affairs specialists.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.