'Talk to me in English,' Gov. Crist urges government


Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 2:00 p.m.

Charlie Crist's first move as governor is tackling bureaucratic language and barriers to public information that he criticized recently as an ''arrogance'' in state government that intentionally distances itself from citizens.

Surrounded by TV cameras and reporters, Crist signed an executive order Wednesday, Jan. 4, that requires each state agency to ''adopt a plan to implement Plain Language guidelines'' to ''communicate in a clear, easily understood manner.''

The order also implements a new Code of Ethics and Code of Personal Responsibility for state agencies, requires training for each agency secretary on matters of ethics and open government, and mandates a ''top to bottom review of how each (state agency employee) can better serve the people.''

While campaigning last year, Crist was sometimes flummoxed by questions that included government acronyms.

''What I always say to people sort of as a general rule is, 'I don't know what you're talking about. Talk to me in English,''' Crist said. ''People throw out these acronyms and government gobbledy-gook. It's very difficult to understand and I've always sort of had this sense that there's this arrogance about that. That's wrong and it shouldn't exist.

''Some try to portray themselves as smarter than you by using this sort of terminology in a way that's unkind,'' Crist said.

Ron Sachs was the spokesman for Gov. Lawton Chiles and now leads one of the state's top public relations firms, Ron Sachs Communications.

Sachs sympathized with Crist's efforts, noting that while working for Chiles, a governor's office employee suggested the regrettably named ''Minimum Standards for Batterers Commission'' to reduce domestic violence. The name was changed.

Sachs said government employees who write ''coma-inducing language'' are ''accustomed to talking wonk to wonk'' and aren't trained to communicate in simple English.f-z

He called Crist's executive order ''a wonderful, refreshing statement on Gov. Crist's being hell-bent on making sure that government is open, accessible and understandable to the people it serves.''

But he cautioned that an executive order can only go so far.

''The only way to fix this is to give them all a crash course in communicating,'' Sachs said.

Gov. Jeb Bush also tried to eradicate acronyms, repeatedly telling state officials who used them to speak in ''English, please.''f-z

Crist's actions on Wednesday are also another sign of his sensitivity to the media, the state's most ardent advocates for open government. Agencies under Bush's watch occasionally tossed up obstacles to requests for public information.

Crist went as far to suggest his hopes that the media would ''rejoice'' in his efforts. ''Your first day in office you get a chance to set a tone and that's what the lieutenant governor and I are striving to do,'' Crist said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

Crist's creation of an ''Office of Open Government'' sets it apart from most other states, said Adria Harper, the director of the First Amendment Foundation.

She said a recent audit conducted by the group found that less than half of local and state agencies adequately responded to the constitutionally protected requests for documents. ''I think that it is certainly a step that is unlike any other by any preceding governor,'' said Harper, who said the new office may be a place for any citizen to go to if they feel public information is being withheld.

Crist's first press conference as governor started 30 minutes late and was held in his office, an unusual venue under Bush's tenure. Crist's parents and other family members waited patiently on couches and chairs as he signed the order. Crist's desk was clear, save for a few items including two cough drops, a blank memo pad with ''Office of the Governor,'' a holder containing business cards labeled ''Charles Crist, Governor'' and a nameplate featuring only the words, ''It CAN be done.''

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