A Government White Paper that doesn’t do Justice


It’s not every day that a white paper makes the national news, so when it does, I think it presents a great opportunity to blog about it.

The white paper I am referring to was obtained by NBC News from a Justice department official regarding the controversial decision from the Obama Administration to execute American citizens that may be serving as enemy combatants in foreign lands. The confidential 16-page Justice Department white paper concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.

Rather than discuss the politics associated with this issue, I’d rather discuss the components of this white paper and what its subsequent public awareness does for the perception of white papers as a whole among the general public, and whether that image fosters either a positive or negative impression of the medium.

In my opinion, this white paper reinforces an ongoing stereotype of white papers as a stogy, boring, and outdated document format, something that I like to call “a 1.0 white paper”. It’s not surprising that when you take it at face value, not much has changed within government circles since the format was first introduced in the early part of the 20th century. Of course, since it IS a government document, like much of government itself, it doesn’t have to compete in the open marketplace of ideas, and as a result, can stay as a plain vanilla design without concern to its effectiveness to achieve message delivery and/or retention.

In my opinion, here’s what’s wrong with this white paper:

1. An all text format that forces the reader to read each and every page in order to ascertain and digest its key, bottom line issues.

2. A 16-page size that only a dedicated news reporter or “inside the beltway” government officials that have a direct relationship with the Justice department will read from cover to cover. After all, if Congress members don’t read their own bills prior to a vote, what hope does a boring white paper like this have of being read in its entirety?

3. The lack of any summary (either Executive or Concluding) that would aid the reader to quickly assimilate the most important messages in the white paper.

4. The Times Roman font. Maybe it’s an improvement over the Courier font that used to make a white paper look like it just rolled off a typewriter, but not by much. It doesn’t take much to Select-All text, and move the mouse to another sharp looking serif font found in just about every operating system such as Bookman, Century, or Palatino.

5, The lack of any text enhancements. A few bullets or some sidebar callouts/pull quotes would reinforce key points on several pages, assisting skim readers (like me) that may be flipping through the document for the first time.

6. The lack of any design elements. I understand that government doesn’t associate design and graphics with white papers. But come on. If the British Government can package their white papers with a simple and clean design, I don’t understand why our government can’t. They certainly waste billions everyday on failed projects. A couple of thousand on this project would go a long way to enhancing the government’s image and getting their message across to the general public. It certainly seems to work with the UK government. Which one do you think will have a greater portion of its content read?

So here’s the bottom line. Our government may have many innovative technologies at its disposal across many departments, but  in the area of white paper marketing and communications, it still has a long way to go to distance itself from it’s early 20th century “all text” roots. Call me a pessimist, but something tells me that little will change in this area.

The viral exposure to this white paper only reinforces the image of the white paper medium as something your grandfather might read, but one that has little appeal to the vast majority of the public citizenry.

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