Say It in English, Please (or maybe Spanish)

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6 Steps our federal agencies might want to consider to improve public participation

By Jerry D. Spangler

For nigh a decade now, I have spent an inordinate amount of my time immersed in land management planning documents, looking for weaknesses and flaws in how federal agencies manage cultural resources for their long-term protection. It is an important part of what we do at the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.

And there is almost always something to criticize, something that could be made better, something that is inherently flawed.

But there is one fundamental truth to all of these documents: They are dry as dirt.

Maybe a handful of bureaucratic geeks see them as their own twisted version of “50 Shades of Grey,” but truth be told these documents are without a doubt a tasteless gumbo of legal-speak, an alphabet soup of acronyms, and a listless catalog of authorizations and objectives and planning lingo that are incomprehensible to Joe and Jane Citizen.

It is little wonder the public rarely comments on these documents. Most people have never learned this arcane language (maybe Rosetta Stone should come out with a version for government-speak).

Not surprisingly, the planning process – and the far-reaching decisions that result from them – defaults to those who do speak the language: the bureaucrats, conservation groups, industry insiders, and special interest lobbyists – all of who claim to speak for the masses but rarely (if ever) do.

The great Irish statesman Edmund Burke once offered a timeless quote on the triumph of evil. I have been known to bastardize that quote to read “the only thing necessary for stupidity to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Sure, the government agencies do what is legally required of them: They post notifications on government bulletin boards, they might host an open house here and there with charts and graphs, and they level entire forests printing even more dry documents that few people ever read.

But we shouldn’t be surprised if stupidity prevails under the current system. Given the importance of these decisions to all of us, I am offering an admittedly naive “outsider perspective” that I believe could better engage the masses:

1)  The federal government’s old way of doing public outreach simply does not work in a digital age. Embrace the new technology to get your message out. Use forums like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, et al. In today’s world, people rarely go to a web site unless they are buying something. So take your message to the forums where people are at and engage them directly (in 45 characters or less if need be).

2)  Identify your target audience and reach out to them rather than wait for them to engage you. For example, if the issue is the management of archaeological sites along vehicle routes then create a public forum for the exchange of ideas about your planning document. You just might find that dialogue (even in the world of instant messaging) can bring together competing groups to achieve a common good within the framework of your planning document.

3)  Define your message plainly and simply. Most recently, we have been reviewing the Bureau of Land Management’s “Scoping Document” for the Nine Mile Canyon Special Recreation Management Area. Yet nowhere in the document (or on the Price Field Office website) does it clearly define what a Scoping Document is or exactly what information is sought from the public. (Or if such information is there, it is buried so deep as to never be found). Never assume anyone else knows what you are talking about.

4)  I understand that various laws and implementing regulations require planning documents be formatted in certain (boring) ways. But does this process disallow you from having a short “introduction” or “executive summary” written specifically for Joe and Jane that speaks to why this particular document was created, the specific information sought from the public, and how they should present their comments to the agency? And can you do it without a single reference to a legal authorization or using a single acronym?

5)  Ask yourself if your document will be understood by a soccer mom in Salt Lake City or a plumber in Moab or a retiree in St. George. Once you think you have a final document, consider having it massaged by an outsider who can take your insider government speak and translate it into English. You might think you speak plain English, but trust me here you don’t.

6) The Department of Interior has made a big show of its desires to get more people out and about enjoying their public lands, especially reaching out to young people and minorities. But where is this reflected in the bureaucratic planning? Are these documents also available in Spanish or any other language? Where are the primers that will teach young people how to participate? And how does your time-worn approach reflect how young people and minorities enjoy public lands in ways much different than generations past?

As I read through the six different planning documents on my desk at the moment, this nagging suspicion keeps creeping through the keyholes of my mind: These documents were certainly written to comply with the law, but were they ever really intended to be understood by anyone other than a select few?

Public participation is at the heart of sound government policy. Yet the current approach seems only to encourage good people to do nothing.

And that’s just plain stupid.

 

Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of cultural resources on public lands. He can be reached at Jerry_cpaa@comcast.net.

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4 thoughts on “Say It in English, Please (or maybe Spanish)

  1. Tis such a shame really these organizations don’t hire writers, and I mean storytellers in helping to engage the reader. Thing is, I suppose the readers they are used to addressing are already engaged, usually, so they don’t have to work for it.

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  2. You make very valid point. However, the government moves at a pace equal to that of a subduction fault zone in the earth and maybe one day, the government will utilize social media, offer bilingual websites and offer material written in layman terms so that our citizens may understand what that particular document is about. One must have faith that these ideas will manifest and happen in the future.

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