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Clarity at the Pentagon?

February 27, 2014

Jeff Weintraub

In today’s National Journal, defense policy correspondent Sara Sorcher put her finger on one of the Pentagon’s most obvious communications problems: the frequent inability to speak in plain English.

1280px-The_Pentagon_January_2008bI don’t mean to be disrespectful. I’ve met so many impressive, extraordinary people in the military who perform miracles every day. But if you’ve spent even a little time around military folks, you’ll probably experience exactly what I have in my limited exposure to them. I can usually follow them to a point. But all of the sudden, what they’re saying sounds like Chinese to me. Between the profusion of clever, though sometimes tortured acronyms and terms that the lay person could interpret many ways, it’s too often hard to tell what they’re saying. I would bet that many military people themselves get confused by this exotic language.

And I’m not picking only on the military. Talk to anyone from nearly any agency across the government, or to people from specialized sectors in various private industries, and I guarantee you’ll have the same experience.

We all do it. We fall back on the comfortable and familiar terminology, unconscious to how they’re being heard. But, if we care about being understood and getting what we want out of a communication, we have to step back and define terms, describe the ideas behind the jargon and acronyms and, most of all, pay attention to how our audiences are reacting. When you see the eyes glaze over, you know it’s time to try something else.

Sorcher’s article highlights how some Pentagon leaders are getting that message:

“We aren’t communicating. We were not able to communicate the impact of sequester last year,” acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox told an audience Wednesday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. “Because we talked about readiness, and nobody knows what readiness is…. We go into Pentagon-speak, I get it.”

Pentagon officials are already taking a new tack on their informational charm offensive: a little straight talk.

It’s not just that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed his budget proposal a full week before the giant tome lands on lawmakers’ desks on March 4. His deputies—Fox, his comptroller Robert Hale, and chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall—are all over Washington at industry conferences and think tanks explaining exactly what was cut in the budget, and what was spared, and why.

The Pentagon’s budget, too, is finally spelling out exactly what will suffer if Congress does not give them extra money, after years of failing to plan for the worst. For example, the Army, which will shrink by some 40,000 troops in next year’s request, could lose another 30,000 troops the following year if the military does not get more money. The Pentagon will have to retire an aircraft carrier; the entire KC-10 tanker fleet will be cut.

After years of vague warnings, the Pentagon’s newfound transparency means members of Congress will finally be able to feel the political impact on their districts from defense cuts of this magnitude.

Will it work? It’s hard to say. There are many factors — political and fiscal — that figure into Congress’ calculations about military spending. But clear and understandable language is a great place to start.

[Photo of the Pentagon above by David B. Gleason.]

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