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Shaming for Naming

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
November 18, 2022

Naming post offices is the most important role of the United States Congress. This is only true if one defines “most important” purely by the number of bills enacted—a ridiculous proposition, but the most common type of legislation to become Federal law is the naming of post offices. In the current 177th Congress, of the first 214 public laws that received legislative approval and President Biden’s signature, 24 named facilities of the United States Postal Service. Naming things is an under-appreciated role and feature of public policy and public administration.

Atlanta Public Schools recently removed the name “Henry W. Grady” from its respective high school in Midtown due to Mr. Grady’s professed white supremacism. Atlanta is not the only community that has reexamined its past in the contemporary context and decided to make symbolic changes. Grady Memorial Hospital, however, remains the name of the city’s Downtown public hospital. In local slang, a “Grady Baby” is a proud native Atlantan born at the hospital, many of whom, reflecting the city’s demographics, are not white. There is a contrast in the approach to naming the school and the hospital, but reclaiming a name for another purpose is also an option to consider when attempting to unify our communities and address prejudice and injustice. Naming, renaming or recalibrating a name can serve to facilitate societal education and understanding in the public interest.

Ultimately, the new name for the former Grady High School is the generically geographic Midtown High School. The Board of Education is currently considering a name for a new elementary school set to open in Midtown. There are many celebrated Atlantans that the community could use for the new school’s name. An elementary school just outside the city limits already honors the civil rights leader and former local Representative in the United States House of Representatives John Lewis, who passed away in 2020, thus making that particular name less optimal for reuse for logistical reasons (HR 5577, signed by President Biden last month, named an Atlanta Post Office for Representative Lewis and the city appended John Lewis to the front of the name of Freedom Parkway in 2018, one of many streets named after civil rights leaders across the community). Another beloved local hero, Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, passed away in 2021. Perhaps to simplify the already complex process of opening a new school, however, it appears that the school will not be named for Hank Aaron and will likely open with a mundane location-based name in August 2023.

Beyond legislation naming places, the name of legislation itself has an impact on politics and policy. In 2010 calling the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare” galvanized opponents of that legislation and facilitated Republican victories in Congress as a specific check on President Obama’s political agenda.  As that healthcare reform continues to support patients and the American healthcare system beyond initial glitches in its early implementation, Obamacare stands out as an obvious bright spot in the personal legacy of the 44th President. The Inflation Reduction Act has thus far been a signature piece of legislation for the current Administration. Inflation is the most immediate economic concern across the globe, but ultimately this law’s impact on inflation may be minuscule in comparison to the role it plays in climate and clean energy programs and policy. It will be worth following if the disparity in the impacts of the legislation from its title alters its long-term legacy, both in public perception and the scholar and practitioner evaluations.

One Federal program that lived up to its ambitious name was Operation Warp Speed. The development and deployment of effective Covid-19 vaccines under this initiative succeeded in mitigating the pandemic with unprecedented scientific and logistical quickness. Risk had accompanied the choosing of that name in that if it had failed it would have become an easy target for mockery, but fortunately the efforts of the professionals involved allowed Operation Warp Speed to succeed.

Public policy and public administration often occupy a world of dull names and acronyms. In fact, sometimes a governmental program starts with an acronym and works its way into a more formal name and some acronyms, such as NASA for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, become so common in the lexicon that people do not even realize the original meaning. In naming a policy, program, agency or office there is a balance to strike to clearly articulate its purpose and goals while keeping the name simple, on point and, when possible, interesting.  Developing a research agenda and offering courses in public and non-profit nomenclature is not likely to be necessary in the ambiguously named field of public policy and public administration, but it is not a trivial consideration. 

Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Deitchman is on Twitter @Deitchman. His email address is [email protected].   

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