Writing wrongs

Typographic artwork by Piotr Powne

Two years ago the Local Government Association burst forth with an attack on jargon and its deadly effects on readerkind. ‘LGA urges the public sector to ditch jargon to help people during the recession,’ they declared. To support this call, they published a list of ‘200 words that public bodies should not use if they want to communicate effectively with local people.’ I’m not sure what or whom a ‘local person’ is (speaks with a burr, carries a scythe?), but you get the picture, no doubt.

To be pedantic, the LGA published 200 words and phrases, and there were some good old public sector corkers in there. ‘Double devolution’, ‘edge-fit’, ‘worklessness’ and ‘slippage’, for example. There was ‘bottomed-up’ and ‘top-down’. ‘Coterminous’ and ‘coterminosity’. And the utterly fabulous ‘Predictors of Beaconicity’. This thoroughly entertaining exercise was clearly a success, because they published an updated list of 250 words and phrases this year. Once again they had unearthed some horrors. ‘Apportionment’, ‘reablement’ and ‘heriditament’ were three of the best -ments (the last of those requiring Xhosa-class pronunciation skills – try it). Fans of Carry On might enjoy ‘Citizen touchpoints’, ‘pump priming’ and ‘deep dive’. But my favourites were ‘meaningful reusable interactivity’ and ‘goldfish bowl facilitated conversations’. I wonder if Mary Mears has a goldfish?

The LGA’s heart seems to be in the right place. I applaud them for trying to come up with alternatives to the jargon they list. I agree with them that unnecessarily obscure and pretentious language is a waste of human energy. It can confuse, irritate and mislead. It can alienate. And it can allow ineffective jobsworths to hide behind a façade of sophistication. But simply railing against waffle isn’t enough – you have to go on and push for measures that will counteract it. That might require an investment in training, and here’s the rub: ‘investment’ and ‘communications’ are two words you’re unlikely to hear in the same sentence while the government’s austerity attack dogs are listening. Paying money to help local government employees write effectively; well, sounds a bit foppish for straitened times, doesn’t it. It’s the sort of thing local papers and the Daily Mail love to get their claws into.

Sometimes better writing can be achieved through the application of common sense, othertimes it really does require investment in training, resources and the advice of (God forbid!) external language specialists to transform an organisation’s communications. People don’t start writing brilliantly because someone else has written a sarcastic memo about waffle; they teach themselves or they get help from experts. I say this while conscious that the public sector is already awash with consultants advising on this, that and potential synergies with the other. I would much prefer to see councils fix their own language, but I’ve no reason to think all of them can. Poor writing reveals a deeper malaise – a failure to understand the needs of the people you’re trying to connect with. Sometimes an outsider is best placed to see and solve something that deep rooted.

And bad language really is a formidable opponent. To see how difficult it is to annihilate verbiage you have only to look at the LGA website, not for its campaign against jargon but for its use of it. Actually, their prose is generally pretty good – clear, concise and helpful, for the most part. It’s just that every so often they use some of the words they themselves have ‘banned’. In one section they talk about a competency expected of council heads of communication in terms of ‘Horizon scanning skills to flag up reputation issues’. In ‘About LGA’ they use ‘vision’ and ‘champion’. In describing their Local Government Reputation Campaign they talk about ‘core actions’, and claim that ‘Embedding a clear understanding of the vision and behaviours that define the organisation will help bring managers and their teams with us and deliver the change needed to meet new challenges’. You can’t deliver change; it’s not an envelope or a baby.

I point this out not to claim hypocrisy is at work, but to show how tenacious bureaucratese is. It even has the audacity to infect an organisation leading a campaign against it.

I expect we will see a number of public bodies trying to appear appropriately austere by shouting about jargon. I suggest we take what they say with a pinch of salt. In fact, we should be suspicious of their motives unless they say what they will do – or should be done – to address it. Denouncing gobbledygook generates headlines and can be claimed as an ‘initiative’, but it requires more than words to solve a problem with words. Anyone can hold Predictors of Beaconicity up to ridicule; few seem able to address the root causes of such verbiage, including the inability of some in local government to put themselves into the minds of others. Or perhaps I should say, it’s one thing to scan the horizon for flagging-appropriate reputation scenarios, it’s another to deliver your organisation to the end of the communications critical path by optimising best practice user-centric outcome strategies.

Tim Tim Rich on LGA campaign against public sector jargon

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