August 12, 2015
The Uses and Abuses of Buzzwords for Open Government
I’ve got buzzwords on the brain lately. As I describe the projects I have worked on over the past year (an evaluation of an open government innovation fellowship, facilitating co-creation workshops for the Civil Society Innovation Initiative, a case study of a program to increase citizen engagement and government responsiveness), I keep hearing the same phrases over and over: “government innovation,” “participation,” “co-creation”… Over the course of these projects, I’ve heard, written, and said more buzzwords (and fuzzwords) more times than I’d like to admit.
It’s not that government innovation, participation, and co-creation are bad ideas—of course they’re not! It’s that these terms have become part of the imprecise governance-speak running rampant through the open government space. These vague concepts may at one point connote something specific, but they then become so overused that they mean just about anything to anyone. Buzzwords include terms like “innovation” and “co-creation,” while seemingly everyday words like “engagement” and “government” can be used imprecisely as fuzzwords to no one’s benefit, and to some people’s potential harm. As Andrea Cornwall writes in the introductory chapter to the fascinating book Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords:
“[These phrases] gain their purchase and power through their vague and euphemistic qualities, their capacity to embrace a multitude of possible meanings, and their normative resonance. The work that these words do for development is to place the sanctity of its goals beyond reproach.”
I’m not suggesting we eradicate this jargon completely; like other potentially dangerous elements, it can be very useful in small quantities. Innovators must create coalitions of people from different government ministries and across sectors, and these phrases can be shortcuts to finding common ground. As we build bridges across diverse, multi-sectoral groups, it can be useful to have language that excites a broad range of people to embrace new concepts, break old boundaries, and define new possibilities.
But while buzzwords can be useful, they are not without risk. They mask ambiguity in ways that end up creating confusion or conflict when it’s time to convert those catchy phrases into program activities and budget priorities. Like all jargon, they also tend to be difficult to translate. This privileges those who are fluent in a buzzword-loving language like English, while creating a barrier to entry for—and ultimately disempowering—those who are less comfortable with the nuances and implied meanings of these unfamiliar phrases in an unfamiliar tongue. In the realm of open government programming, buzzwords can make a particular solution seem like an exciting “must-have” when it’s actually not the one best suited for the problem at hand. Or, they may be so broad as to allow people to claim a mantel and its attendant benefits without much justification.
Finally, keep in mind that everyone working in the government innovation space is likely suffering from buzzword fatigue too. Avoiding the use of buzzwords is itself innovative: it can be truly refreshing to listen to someone who refuses to use them.
When designing new open government programs, it’s important to use clear, simple language. Especially in the planning phase, everyone benefits when words like innovation, co-creation, and even “open government,” can be replaced with very clear descriptions of the key characteristics of each. Those buzzwords and fuzzwords may make another appearance when it’s time to be strategic about external messaging. For example, “open government” references an entire movement and nods to an associated global, multilateral partnership in a way that “transparent, accountable, and participatory government” may not.
In our work developing a new resource for open government implementers, we decided that we could all use some help in governance-speak diagnosis. The following table is meant to help us check those instances of (non-strategic) imprecision.
- Which information is being made transparent and to whom?
- Is this information something that has been asked for, and for which there is already demand?
- How does revealing this information advance specific outcomes (e.g., improving citizens’ lives)?
- Which specific linkages and interactions between individuals and institutions am I referring to?
- What incentives drive the behavior that I define as negative, and are there specific ways I can modify incentive structures?
- What channels of feedback exist between individuals and institutions? Which can be strengthened?
- Who exactly will be involved in the activity I’m describing? (Think of real-life individuals and groups you know, rather than general categories.)
- Do I mean broad-based involvement from all sectors of the population, or specific types of individuals or organizations?
- What specific activities do I expect these people to be undertaking? How will their participation further my goals, and is there a “critical mass” of participants needed before I will see desired results?
- What form of innovation am I referring to? Is it innovation in the actors involved, processes utilized, outcomes produced, and/or something else?
- Is this a new solution, an existing solution brought to a new context, or a recombination of existing and new ideas?
- Do I just mean “technology?” If so, is there a good reason to use the word “innovation” instead?
- Who should provide input into the shape of the program for it to constitute co-creation? Am I including key actors who will participate in or be affected by implementation?
- What pre-existing power dynamics normally prevent these groups from having input? How does the co-creation process I am proposing mitigate the impacts of such dynamics?
- How will the solution benefit from an invested community of collaborators?
- Which “citizens” specifically will benefit or be involved?
- Do these citizens comprise one identifiable group with shared characteristics, or are there multiple groups that may have differing opinions and reactions to this program?
- Which level of government am I referring to?
- Am I referring to the government apparatus or to specific individuals that work within it?
- Which individuals?
- Elected officials?
- Political appointees?
- Civil servants?
- Specialists in a certain technical area?
- Frontline service providers?
- Am I referring to the full sphere of society that exists in the space between the family and the government or the state? If not, which slice of “civil society” am I referring to?
- Do I mean civil society organizations or individual activists?
- If I am thinking organizations, do I mean advocacy, service delivery, politically affiliated, and/or professional association organizations?
- What is the collection of specific conversations, interactions, or other activities that I expect my program to enable?
- What is the scope and depth of involvement or interaction that I am envisioning?
- Do I mean more transparent, accountable, and/or participatory government? Or some other vision of how government might work?
- Am I referring specifically to activities related to the Open Government Partnership?
What’s your favorite buzzword or fuzzword? What do you wish we would all just say instead? Let us know in the comments, or @theReboot.
This post is adapted from Reboot’s forthcoming publication: Implementing Innovation: A User’s Manual for Open Government Programs.