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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

|

NOVEMBER 2016

17

SPEAKING OUT

Getting Beyond Bureaucratese—Why Writing

Like Robots Damages U.S. Interests

BY PAUL POL ETES

“Innovation engagements” is a good

example of the pompous jargon often

used in bureaucratese—it sounds

impressive, but actually says nothing.

I

s there a State Department writing

style? Formally, no. Unlike

The New

York Times

, we don’t have an official

style and usage guide. The Executive

Secretariat has a style guide, but it’s

mostly focused on usage of acronyms

and region-specific terminology. A few

other offices or bureaus have guidelines

for drafters, but these are all ad hoc,

more along the line of tips than rules. As

an organization, the old mantra—“the

best way to write is whatever way your

boss tells you to write”—still mostly

holds true.

But read enough State cables, memos

and published annual reports, and

you’ll see something resembling a com-

mon style take shape. Unfortunately, it’s

a style that’s often boring and confusing

to read, characterized by wordiness,

empty jargon, wishy-washy prose and

a near total lack of human touch. It’s a

style I call “bureaucratese.”

Bureaucratese in Action

Here are a few examples of State

Department bureaucratese in action.

See how jargon, clutter and robotic

prose drain the life out of our writing

and obscure our message. I found all of

these examples on

www.state.gov

.

USAID/State 2014 Annual Perfor-

mance Report:

“On another front, the

Department of State is monitoring a

Paul Poletes completed a tour as deputy chief of mission at U.S. Embassy Ashgabat

this summer and is now studying Latvian at the Foreign Service Institute. He

joined the Foreign Service in 1998 and has previously served in Athens, Dhaka,

Bishkek, Tirana and Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

positive trend in the number of foreign

students studying in the U.S. and notes

progress is on track to meet goal of a 50

percent increase in high-level science and

technology and innovation engagements.”

What are “innovation engagements”?

I have no idea. Are they somehow

related to the number of foreign stu-

dents in the United States? We don’t

know that either, because the sentence

doesn’t say. This entire passage is

mostly vague fluff that implies progress

but in fact tells us little of substance.

“Innovation engagements” is a good

example of the pompous jargon often

used in bureaucratese—it sounds

impressive, but actually says nothing.

Benghazi Accountability Review

Board Final Report

: “With increased and

more complex diplomatic activities in

the Middle East, the [State] Department

should enhance its ongoing efforts to

significantly upgrade its language capac-

ity, especially Arabic, among American

employees, including DS, and receive

greater resources to do so.”

This sentence is such a disaster, it’s

hard to know where to begin. I under-

stand what it’s trying to say, but can

it be said more clearly and forcefully?

“With more State Department person-

nel working in the Middle East, the

department must train more Arabic

speakers—including in Diplomatic

Security. Congress should give the

department the resources to train more

Arabic speakers.” The revision isn’t any

shorter than the original, but it’s clearer

and more to the point. Accountability

Review Board reports should be hard-

hitting and focused. Burying recom-

mendations and findings under layers

of bureaucratese does a disservice to

the board and its mission.

It’s Not What You Say. . .

I singled out the reports above

not because they are bad reports, but

because they are good examples of how

bureaucratic writing undermines what

we’re trying to accomplish. As State

Department officials, we’re trained to

focus on the substance of what we write.

We work hard to get the facts straight,

forgetting that how we present the

information is often just as important,

or even more important, than the facts