Last December, Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont, grew agitated at language that was being used to describe his state's fiscal problems. Misuse of the seemingly innocent word "deficit" was what set him off. Dean argued that it wasn't fair to talk about Vermont facing a deficit when its budget hadn't even passed yet. As far as he was concerned, Vermont simply faced some hard choices about priorities, which would be resolved.

Some might characterize such an issue as being merely semantics. But we've come to the conclusion that fuzzy language is one of the biggest impediments to good management and to understanding the way government really works.

In chatting about this with Scott Pattison, director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, we found he agrees--particularly when it comes to deficits. "Using the word deficit for the states adds to a lack of understanding about how the states' fiscal situation differs from that at the federal level," he says. The federal government, of course, is allowed to pass budgets that assume it's going to spend more money than it takes in. States can't. By using the term "deficit," which means very different things at different levels of government, Pattison points out that "policy makers at the federal level don't understand why there is so much more pain at the state level."

There are other misunderstandings on the fiscal side. The flip side of "deficits" are "surpluses." While surpluses are generally thought of as the budgetary equivalent of mom's apple pie, there is another side to that story. Sometimes governments run surpluses because they blew their revenue estimates badly. At some level, surpluses may be a sign of bad management--although you hardly ever hear a public official apologizing for them.

There are all sorts of other words and phrases that simply wilt when subjected to scrutiny. The field of human resource management has some doozies. There was a time, for example, that we thought we understood the meaning of "merit pay," as it applies to a personnel system--that it actually had something to do with merit and that better employees would be paid better, for example, than mediocre ones. Silly us. It turns out that in many entities merit-pay increases go to every employee who isn't at risk of being fired. "Merit," it seems, is used interchangeably with "capable of getting out of bed."

Or consider the word "position," as in "the human resources department lost 33 positions last year." You'd think that meant that there were actually 33 human beings who lost their jobs. You'd be wrong--at least most of the time. Often when governments boast about eliminating positions, all they've really done is to get rid of unfilled jobs. This is a fine way to look good without actually getting anybody angry.

The phrase "workforce planning" is bandied around a lot, too. It's a real chameleon. We think of workforce planning as meaning that an entity is carefully evaluating its personnel needs for the future and taking steps to make sure it can hire the right men and women when the time comes. But a representative of one Midwestern county, who bragged that "workforce planning" had been in effect in his locality since the mid-1970s, turned out to have a somewhat different interpretation. All the county had been doing was reviewing requests for new jobs when it passed the budget each year.

The whole area of "managing for results" is muddy. A few years ago, Katherine Willoughby and Julia Melkers, of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, published a report that indicated that a number of states were engaged in so-called performance-based budgeting. But they took their research even further and discovered that the meaning of this catch-all phrase varied quite widely from state to state. Here's a sample from their report: When it came to using performance-based budgeting, "Nevada's legislation states only that budget documents must contain a mission statement and measurement indicators for each program." Texas, on the other hand, goes much further. The state has "performance measurement requirements that provide explicit guidelines for state agencies to define six-year strategic plans for their programs along with their budget requests."

We had been covering management in states and localities for quite a while before we realized we had no solid idea what performance-based budgeting meant. After engaging dozens of public officials in heartfelt conversations on the topic, it began to dawn on us that the meaning of that phrase was varying from conversation to conversation. When we started to ask people to define it for us, we came to an even more unsettling truth: The people who claimed they were doing it couldn't define it either. This clearly doesn't help when it comes to implementing such a system.

As time has gone on, we've become practiced at asking people to define their terms. But we're lucky. We get to ask for those clarifications. Unfortunately, citizens who just know what they read in the papers don't have that privilege.