There was a fear when the Freedom of Information Act was passed that government officials would not put anything into writing anymore. Happily, this has not been the case. Since a government servant now knows that his actions could be questioned by anyone, he is putting more and more of his decisions on paper to protect himself.
My source for this is Wilfred Amberduke, who works in a federal agency and is charged with writing up memoranda and regulations for his supervisor.
He told me, "The first thing you have to do when writing a government directive is to figure out how you can say something so no one will understand it. In this way a supervisor wll be covered in case someone questions his decision. The more obtuse the communication, the happier your boss will be."
"And your role is to please your suprvisor?"
"That's the only role any of us in the government has," he said. "If you can protect your supervisor's job, you will be considered a loyal team player subject to praise and promotion. One of the keys to this is to devise ways of writing a directive over his signature that makes no sense to anyone who reads it."
"How do you manage to do this?" I asked.
"It's not easy. The main trick, of course, is to write long. You can create a lot more confusion in a 10-page memo than in one that only takes up five pages.
"Before I learned the system, I wrote a one-page directive for my boss that was so clear and concise that even he could understand it. He threw it back at me and said, 'Amberduke, you're after my job.'"
"Could you give me an example of how you fill up the pages of a government directive?"
"All right. Suppose we want to put out a directive that says that 'river restaurants will not contamiate river waters.' The first thing we would do would be to define a river. Then we would spell out the characteristics of a restaurant. We would devote several paragraphs to the meaning of contamination, and finally we would give the accepted defnition of water.
"After that we would cross-reference it with other directives spelling out the limitations and strictures thereof. If the river restaurant also bordered a highway, it would be subject to Paragraph 12, Section A, of the Clean Highway Act, unless it was located over a 5,000-foot elevation, in which case said restaurant would be governed by Paragraphs 145 and 146 of the Clean Air Act as well, except in the case of seafood restaurants and drive-ins.
"The more you can cite other regulations, the more chance you have of covering your own tail.
"The other thing, of course, is to be redundant. We in the directive business have discovered that if your boss liked it once, he'll love it the second time."
"But suppose the thing doesn't make any sense at all?" I asked.
"If it doesn't make any sense to anybody -- then it will make sense to your supervisor."
"I guess it requires a special talent to take a simple idea and screw it up so badly that it is unintelligible to anyone who reads English."
"Who said you have to write a government directive in English?"