You Gotta Speak the Language


A long time ago, my grandmother– born and raised in Albany, Georgia— went to Germany for my brother’s wedding. She’d never been outside the country before and was excited about the trip, and of course, her grandson’s wedding. While she was there though, she had a bit of a problem communicating– see, she didn’t speak German. Her solution to the problem was instinctive but not logical– just speak English loudly and slowly. Increase volume until there’s understanding. One person she encountered over there responded to her by speaking German loudly and slowly.

Her response: “He is so rude.”

Unfortunately, sometimes we in the open government and journalism community fall prey to this instinctive response when we’re not being heard. But as I’ve said before– the more we learn about how Government works, the more obvious it is that there’s a language gap between the outside and inside of government.

Take, for instance, the recent release of proposals, and the harsh criticism GSA got for redacting so much of them. It seems to me that if you’re committed to opening up government, throwing bombs about these redactions is a little short sighted. Just like my grandmother in Germany, yelling louder just makes it easier for the people who don’t understand you to dismiss you.

The “confused language/yell louder” approach by many is:

  1. Government releases a proposal thinking they’re doing something great
  2. Journalists and Open Government advocates yell about how awful it is that so much is redacted

The end result? Government says “well, that didn’t do any good” and they move on.

If we really want change in this process, I think what we should be doing is:

  1. Praising the Government for doing what they did, and making it safe for Government to do it again.
  2. Using the precedent to make the releasing of even redacted proposals without FOIA the status quo.
  3. Then push government to redact less and less

After all, the releasing of those proposals is a big deal. We now have something to point to when the next thing comes around. We can now say: “Hey, you’ve done it before– let’s do it again here,” and make our case. And making efforts to learn the language of Government, and understand it from their position is going to get us a lot further in the long-term.