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PRISM continues U.S. government tradition of death by PowerPoint

With the revelation that the Obama administration has continued a Bush-era program at the National Security Agency to directly access the servers of nine leading tech companies, civil liberties advocates have a sneaking suspicion that not much has changed at the White House since Obama took over. Rather than dismantling the national security apparatus he ...

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

With the revelation that the Obama administration has continued a Bush-era program at the National Security Agency to directly access the servers of nine leading tech companies, civil liberties advocates have a sneaking suspicion that not much has changed at the White House since Obama took over. Rather than dismantling the national security apparatus he attacked as a candidate, he seems to have kept it largely in place.

But here’s another trend Obama looks to have continued during his time in office: The use of horrifically bad PowerPoint slides.

In their bombshell reports on PRISM — the NSA program at the center of the latest scandal — the Guardian and the Washington Post both relied on a series of 41 slides intended for a group of senior NSA analysts. Judging by the slides published by the two papers, the folks over at the super-high tech spy agency aren’t all too PowerPoint proficient. Switch out some of the text, and the slides wouldn’t look all that out of place at a high school bake sale — a bake sale with some high-powered corporate sponsors, anyway.

Courtesy of the Washington Post, have a look:

It may sound trivial, but the use of terrible, often-confusing PowerPoint slides is a serious problem for the U.S. military, and the slides describing PRISM — while by no means the worst offenders — continue a long, dismal history of the U.S. government proving less than adept at effectively communicating information.

To get some perspective on why the U.S. government should pay more attention to good design, FP called up John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design and the author of The Laws of Simplicity.

“At  first glance, it seems that that the issue is something about aesthetics, but when you look deeper from a design perspective, you see that it’s cut and pasted together from many sources and it reveals the social engineering behind the presentation,” Maeda says of the NSA’s PRISM presentation.”What you get isn’t even chicken soup but a chunky stew.”

Good design is often confused with prettiness, but with a presentation like this one the far more important issue is effective communication, according to Maeda. In the NSA’s slides, the jumble of corporate logos at the top of the presentation creates a great deal of confusion over who is accountable for this program, Maeda says.

So if you’re a government worker reading this, here’s some advice from Maeda on what makes for an effective, well-designed presentation: “It’s more about clarity over style and accountability over indifference.”

Confusing PowerPoint presentations have become something of a running joke inside the U.S. government, and the problem is particularly acute inside the U.S. military — of which the NSA is a part. “PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis declared at a military conference in 2010.

The ur-father of awful PowerPoint slides is a now-iconic flowchart of the interconnected causes behind the war in Afghanistan presented to commanders in 2009. That flowchart, which looks like something a college student might produce in the midst of an overnight Ritalin-binge, is below (and in all its hi-res glory here):

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal observed upon being shown the slide.

While the rest of us have to live in an information economy in which the presentation of information makes a real difference, the U.S. government has the privilege of living above all that.

But that doesn’t mean it’s better off for it.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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