Yesterday, as Congress began to debate a highly controversial and fast-moving energy bill, the General Accounting Office published a timely and highly relevant report, “Electricity Restructuring: 2003 Blackout Identifies Crisis and Opportunity for the Electricity Sector.”
Usually GAO reports are packed with rich information and detail. However, this time the body of this “report” is presented as a series of PowerPoint-type slides! I kid you not check out the report after the first few pages (which are a letter of introduction).
Here’s GAO’s explanation of the format…
“Over the past several weeks, GAO staff briefed numerous congressional
staff on its observations. In response to [the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs’] request, we prepared this overview to accompany the slides used in these presentations. Appendix I presents the latest briefing slides in their entirety. Our briefing is based largely on reports we previously issued on a range of electricity issues along with updated information…”
I’ve read a lot of GAO reports, and I’ve never seen this before. It’s odd, and I don’t think it works well. These slides offer nowhere near the level of detail and analysis that is the hallmark of GAO reports. Sadly, that kind of rich information is sorely needed on this particularat this particular time, since the major balckouts of 2003 are a key reason why there’s so much pressure on Congress to enact new energy policy before the end of the year.
It may be that GAO did the best it could in a short amount of time; but I do hope this slide format does not become regular practice for the agency.
But it appears there might possibly be a disturbing trend developing, in government circles at least, where important reports are being presented in slides format rather than as real reports. This can have disastrous consequences. In fact, a poorly prepared PowerPoint presentation may have contributed directly to the Columbia shuttle disaster. (See Edward Tufte’s critique of the fateful NASA slide.)
In a Sept. 28, 2003, New York Times article, “The Level of Discourse Continues to Slide,” John Schwartz discusses how PowerPoint presentations are creeping like kudzu into many areas of organizational communication.
Schwartz noted that the independent board that investigated the Columbia disaster, “…was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”
…Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate PowerPoint altogether. It’s a tool, like any other. I myself usually create electronic slide presentations to accompany my seminars and training sessions. (However, I create mine in OpenOffice Impress, which I vastly prefer over PowerPoint.)
Still, electronic presentations do not belong on the Web unless they’re specifically designed to stand alone. Also, they probably should not be used in place of real reports especially where time-sensitive issues or operations are concerned.