5 of the Most Misunderstood Terms in Government

Government managers all appear to be speaking English, but the same words and phrases often have multiple, contradictory meanings.
April 9, 2015
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

According to the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, ancient people built a tower that would reach high into the heavens to demonstrate the power of man. Unhappy with this kind of hubris, the Lord came down and created a number of different languages so the builders couldn’t communicate with one another, stating, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

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While not many government managers are out to build magnificent towers, they often seem to operate with a similar affliction: Though they all appear to be speaking English, the same words and phrases often have multiple, contradictory meanings. This stands in the way of moving forward on many management and policy decisions and confuses the public.

We’ve come across a number of these, and pointed to some of them in columns we’ve written for Governing over the last sixteen years. Here are five that are particularly important:

Merit Pay

These words aren’t referring to providing more money for higher quality work any more than a chain store is a store made of series of connected metal links. Commonly, merit pay in government goes to the vast majority of personnel who are neither superstars nor on the road to being fired. Technically, merit pay is simply the policy of using agreed-upon criteria over a period of time to establish someone’s salary schedule. But those criteria are often minimalistic descriptions of the basic tasks an employee is supposed to perform. In other words, people don’t have to do anything to merit it beyond performing at an acceptable level.

Balanced Budget

It’s hard to find an article about government financial management without reading about how 49 out of the 50 states (all except Vermont) have some kind of requirement that their budgets be balanced. But when governors talk about a balanced budget as a sign of their state’s fiscal stability, they’re only telling part of the story. Balanced budgets are typically only balanced on the day they’re signed. There’s no guarantee that surprising declines in revenues or accelerating expenses won’t throw the budget out of balance months or even weeks into the fiscal year. (Read about the difference between a balanced budget and a sustainable budget.)

Vacancies

It might sound like a vacancy in the public sector is a job that someone, somewhere is trying to fill. Actually, it’s somewhat different. A vacancy is often representative of a job that’s been included in the budget and funded, whether or not the agency is trying to find someone for the position. In fact, agencies can hold onto many vacancies for years, using the budgetary dollars as a kind of slush fund for other purposes.

Big Data

If you talk to many people in government about big data, you’re likely to get different definitions. At least that was the conclusion we reached after talking to representatives of 10 states. For a couple, big data simply represented the effort to share information successfully among multiple agencies. Others told us that big data is the result of utilizing cutting-edge technology to make sense out of huge, nearly incomprehensible numbers of data elements. And a couple of others were a bit more caustic, suggesting in one case that it's "a hyperbolic marketing phrase."

Deficits vs. Shortfalls

Though these words are often used interchangeably, they are very different. A deficit is the amount by which, at the end of a fiscal year, a government’s expenditures exceed its revenues. The federal government is allowed to run a deficit at the end of the year -- and frequently does. But most cities and states can’t do so and wind up doing something to raise cash or reduce costs before the end of the year. Often when you hear people refer to deficits in states and localities, they are really talking about “shortfalls,” which are projected gaps that should be filled during budget development. At heart, a shortfall is a budget gap that a state or city has to fill while the budget creation process is still ongoing. A deficit is a budget gap that hasn’t been filled by the end of the year.

Misunderstandings of terms and phrases like these isn’t entirely parallel to the story of the Tower of Babel, of course. They’re not going to make the entire structure of government collapse. But it’s not nitpicking either. Tell a taxpayer who has just stood in a three-hour line at the DMV that the vast majority of DMV employees get merit raises every year, for example. Nothing good can come of that.