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Shersby
Lucy Shersby on her crusade against municipal jargon.

Britain is sinking in a tide of gobbledegook – much of it starting out in the public sector.

It is no longer acceptable for bureaucrats to speak of money, instead there are revenue streams. We don’t have lollipop ladies or men, now they are school crossing patrollers. And Britain is deemed to be a
nation of localities, rather than good old-fashioned cities, towns, villages or suburbs.

With public spending rocketing as Gordon Brown attempts to buy his way out of the recession, there is a risk that we are heading straight from bust to babble. Local government – sorry, councils to those of us in the real world – are the source of a lot of this jargon.

It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Every five-year-old (hopefully) knows the story of the king persuaded to parade in non-existent ‘fine robes’ which he is told only stupid people cannot see. Both he and his advisers are too vain to say that there is nothing there. It takes an innocent child to shout out that the king is naked – and suddenly the truth is laid bare to all.

In the same way simple policies are dressed up in complicated language to baffle the public. New council workers quickly learn to speak this councilese so that they do not appear ignorant. Why? Are they worried
that if they could be understood the whole facade would collapse and we would find no substance at all?

When I go in to organisations as a consultant to try and de-bunk this
language I find many employees are terrified of using plain English.
Often it is because they don’t really know what the jargon they use
actually means. And, like the fairytale king’s advisers, they don’t
want to appear ignorant. Maybe they fear it would look like anyone
could do their job!

It’s so much easier for them to hide behind long words and acronyms. It
makes their work seem scientific and complicated. Why speak of local
projects when you can have LAAs – an acronym for a Local Area
Agreement, meaning, er, yes…a project! No wonder it seems like we’re living in Laa-Laa land!

Then there are the buzzwords and clichés used by business as much as
bureaucrats. Boring old meetings are out, information touchpoints are
in. If you don’t understand, you’re out of the loop. And that’s the
point. This language keeps others out.

Elected councillors should be our protection against this mumbo-jumbo.
In theory they are ordinary people picked to scrutinised the town hall
staff and make sure the voters understand what’s going on. Sadly, it’s
all too easy to go native. Reluctant to appear like amateurs when
dealing with council officials, they are sucked in by the jargon and
begin spouting it themselves. After all, if you dare to ask what some
obscure acronym actually means you may be greeted with derision. Why
should that official spell it out – he or she doesn’t know the meaning
anyway! It takes some moral fibre to stand up to this guff.

Harrow Council is to be praised for trying to stamp out this nonsense.
It has produced a list of banned jargon, so civic amenity sites will
again be rubbish tips and controlled parking zones become the easy to
understand permit parking or yellow lines.

I hope that issuing a list of banned words will be enough. I doubt it.
This language has become so ingrained that it takes training and skill
to write clearly and simply. A real culture change is needed. Writing
in plain English is a discipline and it needs to be learned.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has also issued a list of 100
banned words, which is a revelation in itself. Whoever wrote it
deserves ten out of ten for effort but only six for clarity.

On this list the ludicrous "coterminosity" is defined as "all singing
from the same hymn sheet" – a cliché which should be avoided, ahem,
like the plague. What’s wrong with saying agreement?

Lower down the list the author just gives up. On reaching the phrase
"predictors of beaconicity", the definition is given as "no idea".
Precisely. (I guess it means the factors that are likely to lead to
beacon status for an organisation – the government equivalent of a teacher’s gold star.)

If the LGA has no idea, what hope is there for the rest of us!

So in 2009 approaches it’s time for Conservative councillors to make a
New Year’s resolution to fight the flabby officialese. Tell your
officials to use language that’s lean and to the point. Give your
constituents a chance, at least, of understanding what the council is
talking about.

Let’s hope it’s a resolution they can stick to. I fear they might find a diet is easier.

Lucy Shersby is a freelance journalist who spent 15 years as a sub-editor at The Sun and runs the plain English consultancy www.writeskills.co.uk. She stood as Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Battersea in 2001.

12 comments for: Cut the council jargon in 2009 or we’ll all be living in LAA-LAA land

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