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The Tower of State and Local Babel

Some years ago, when the phrase “big data,” was first gaining currency, we decided that before we embarked on any projects related to this new silver bullet, we should figure out what it meant. So, we got on the phone and spoke with a dozen smart people we knew in state and local government, asking nothing more than for a definition of that phrase. It turned out that we got at least six different variations on the theme, and there was no real clarity as to what big data really was.

More recently, when we were interviewing an expert in the realm of artificial intelligence, the first question we asked was something like: “Can you define AI?” Our source was finally able to come up with a broad definition, but it took a good five minutes of going back and forth to accomplish that.

The unquenchable thirst for the solutions to all things has led, we believe, to a tendency to throw around exciting glittery verbiage without any reason to be confident that everyone concerned knows exactly what anyone else is talking about.

This doesn’t have to be the case. During an interview with Buncombe County, North Carolina County Manager Avril Pinder, for a column in Route Fifty she told us a story of her quest for clarity. She had a mandate for the county to become a “value-driven” organization. But before she leaped into that task, she and her team “sat down with commissioners in order for them to determine exactly what was meant by “values,” for the county.

“And then we had the organization define those values,” she told us. Now, Buncombe County understands that when people are driving toward values, they’re aiming at respect, integrity, collaboration, honesty, and equity. Pinder didn’t stop there. She made certain that there were shared definitions, based on employee input, for what those individual words meant in the county.

But Pinder’s quest to pin down shared definitions for important words and phrases isn’t common, as far as we can see. And that’s too bad.

Lately, for example, we see the word “agile government,” being used with great frequency, and it’s pretty clear that a lot of people genuinely understand the meaning of that phrase. But we fear that it’s become such a common set of two words that a lot of people want to apply it to anything they’re working on, because what could be wrong about being “agile?”

As we were writing that last paragraph, we decided to Google the phrase “agile government,” to see what we came up with. Here’s what popped up on the top of our screen: “Agile government calls for test-driving various methods and tools in a variety of realms—be it procurement, governance, or workforce—using sandboxes, policy labs, and other innovative techniques. Build a broader ecosystem. The necessary technical know-how often resides outside of government.”

Or we could pick out about a dozen other definitions that are all just a little different.

Even words and phrases that genuinely have clear, technical definitions are often misused out of carelessness or a disregard for precision. As we wrote, in early April, “When you see mentions of surpluses in the press right now, it’s more than likely that the word is being misused.” Our point? Surpluses don’t exist until the end of the fiscal year when budgetary dollars are left over, yet the word was being used back then to describe unanticipated revenues.

We put up a post on LinkedIn about this B&G Report, and got the following salient comment from Terry McKee, director of procurement at Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation, “Unfortunately press releases and press conferences seldom define such terms. They should and reporters should research terms before mindlessly using them.”


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