Jaynehowarth’s Weblog

Journalist and writer

How to ‘engage users’ by getting rid of public sector jargon

with 6 comments

Hurrah for the Local Government Association.
It wants all public sector organisations to ban the appalling jargon and gobbledegook that litter their publications and reports.
The association wants ugly phrases and words to be banned, arguing that they alienate the ordinary person, and are often meaningless.
I applaud this sentiment wholeheartedly.
Is there anything so ugly as listening to someone discuss “blue sky thinking” or “citizen empowerment”?
Why are so many reports bogged down in the sludge of horrible management-speak such as core values, facilitate, edge-fit (what?!), service users, improvement levers, worklessness and – a personal “favourite”, incentivise?
These words and phrases strangle our language and do nothing to “improve our skill set” (sic). They are of such profound hideousness that you might wonder if they fell out of the ugly linguistic tree and hit every branch on the way down before being stamped on by the OED.
These report writers use these phrases because they think it makes them appear clever and professional. No, it doesn’t.
The chairman of the Local Government Association, Cllr Margaret Eaton, said it is vital that councils get their messages across clearly.
“The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases,” she said.
“Why do we have to have ‘coterminous, stakeholder engagement’ when we could just ‘talk to people’ instead?
“Councils have a duty, not only to provide value for money to local people, but also to tell people what they get for the tax they pay. People would be furious if they have no idea of what services their cash is paying for and how they should get to use them. “
Who’d disagree with that?
There are some words and phrases that might (and I say “might” with extreme trepidation) have their place in the privacy of the boardroom, where inter-departmental co-workers might wish to cross-fertilise their ideas and champion collaborative best practice so that they are coterminous for the end user/client. At this point in time. Naturally.
But, for heaven’s sake, don’t be lazy and trot out these sterile phrases because you can’t be bothered to think outside of the box (sic) and engage with the populace or other stakeholders in a meaningful way. Such parameters are not good network models. We want the outcomes to be normalised.
So let’s embrace the LGA’s wish and be proactive in streamlining the potentialities of negative strategic priorities outcomes.
It’s time for these local authorities to interface with the agencies and engage in place shaping so that multidisciplinary practitioners can look at them as beacons of communication.
After all, we live in a can-do culture where there is sufficient capacity building to overcome such challenges.
Consider it actioned.


Written by CommonPeople

March 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

6 Responses

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  1. ok, you’ve got me chuckling.


    March 18, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  2. Plain english can be a good thing. Unneccessary jargon can be alienating (put people off). I agree there are some mystifying terms on the list.

    However, many of the words on the official list are commonly used and seem a bit over the top to include.


    Having transparency isn’t really the same thing as “being clear”. Perhaps being clear, open, accountable – no wait that’s too long a word …

    Strategic is surely more than just something which is “planned”. Empowerment is more than just “people power”. And good practice isn’t just “the best way” surely?

    It’s the best way to be (“good practice”) to get people to think about (assess) what they are really trying to say (“their core message”). I fear however that won’t be the effect this ban list has. It’s more likely that we’ll see more smaller words to communicate ideas which won’t neccessarily make it easier to understand.

    Having worked in the voluntary and community sector, then later in Higher Education and IT (specifically e-learning) I know what a problem jargon can be. Abbreviations used as shorthand can be problematic. Especially as these can mean different things to different groups of people.

    Difficult words I can find in a dictionary (book of words) and I may even learn something.


    March 23, 2009 at 9:31 pm

  3. Thanks for your comments, Rachel.

    I agree that there were a handful of words on the official list (thank you for including the link – I failed to do that)that I don’t have a problem with (robust, sustainable – if it is used it the correct context, and … er, actually, that’s about it).

    There are nuances in meaning occasionally, so I might grudgingly agree that there might be a case for the word “strategic” rather than just “planned”!

    Using the kind of jargon cited by the LGA isn’t bad just because it sounds pompous and over-the-top, but because it smacks of back-slapping mock cleverness.

    Of course, every profession has its jargon and abbreviations. They are used as a shorthand by those in the particular sector; everyone knows what it means because it is used in context.

    If it is being used in specialist publications that are aimed at professionals in the field, that is one thing.

    But when it fails to translate when used in the “real” world, it doesn’t serve a purpose anymore. It puts up barriers and makes the author look lazy because he/she couldn’t be bothered to think what the words mean to those of us who have no understanding of the specialism.


    March 24, 2009 at 7:54 am

  4. This isn’t a new idea: George Orwell attacked the “dead phrases” of officialdom in his 1945 essay Politics and the English language, which reads like it was written yesterday. Orwell’s six principles for good, clear writing have never been bettered.

    In response, Sir Ernest Gower wrote guides for civil servants on writing clearly: the book “Plain words” is still in print and full of good, practical advice.

    The list of banned words is similar to that in the Economist’s style guide, but the LGA list – although a good idea in principle – suggests some odd alternatives. “All singing from the same hymn sheet” and “Devil in the detail” are cliches in themselves.


    April 16, 2009 at 1:07 pm

  5. Thanks for your comments, Simon. I haven’t read the George Orwell essay for about 20 years, but you are absolutely right.


    April 16, 2009 at 3:24 pm

  6. A local government strategy is a plan without a timetable and often no money behind it either.


    April 19, 2009 at 9:11 pm

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