News and Comment

Why can’t the public sector use plain English?

Tuesday 4 September 2012

We’re all guilty of it: lapsing into jargon, hiding behind euphemisms or unwittingly regurgitating the same old clichés. Just this morning ministers “sat by their phones”, while political commentators spoke of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” in honour of David Cameron’s first Cabinet reshuffle.

But as research recently published by the Fabian Society shows, the public sector is perhaps unequalled in its use of hackneyed, confusing and occasionally meaningless terminology. It finds that “very strong suspicion of public service reform narratives used by politicians” exists – and recommends “a new language for talking about how to improve services”.

For years now the Local Government Association has published a list of prohibited words for public sector bodies to avoid in their day-to-day engagement and dialogue with the public. On it? Well, “engagement” and “dialogue” for starters, among such pearls of nonsense as “goldfish bowl facilitated conversation” and “predictors of beaconicity” (yes, seriously).

Both the Labour List and Conservative Home blogs have expressed unease at this proliferation of buzzwords and neologisms. The Plain English Campaign, has gone one step further, asking for a UK Plain Language Act to enshrine in law the manner in which public information can be communicated.

In the face of this negative sentiment it is worthwhile reminding ourselves why such technical language exists at all. Specialist vocabulary, or jargon, has a function – internally, it enables quick and effective communication on complex matters.

Latterly though, an increasing number of ‘neutral’ words popular among public sector bodies seem to have acquired negative connotations. Sitting alongside “synergies” and “taxonomies” of the LGA banned list, are the seemingly innocuous “welcome”, “priorities” and “challenges”. The Fabian Society’s research points to how the words “choice” and “reform” illicit a negative response among the public. Similarly in our own work at OPM we’ve noticed concern regarding the word “consultation”, which, if not done correctly, can be perceived as self-serving exercise, in which people’s opinions are merely seen to be sought.

If scepticism is growing, the public cannot be blamed for it. Bold language has repeatedly been used to describe meagre changes. Deliberately fluffy euphemisms like “downsizing” and “negative growth” disguise harsh economic realities and grammatically incorrect tautologies such as “pre-prepare” and “forward planning” dominate in the office. To win back people’s trust the public sector needs to communicate clearly and plainly, but above all truthfully – otherwise we may see many more words tainted, and added to the LGA’s list.