By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
"There's a problem with my synergistic visions"
Local councils have been warned over a slew of jargon that baffles ordinary people, but why do they love to obfuscate?
The Local Government Association's list of 100 words that should not be used in communication with the general public makes for alarming reading.
It ranges from the slightly muddled such as "revenue stream" [money] and "best practice" [right way to do things] to the downright flabbergasting "predictors of beaconicity" [factors that might lead a local authority to be rewarded under a scheme for the good ones].
Some like "holistic governance" [which might be translated as local government that tackles things with regard to the whole rather than just parts] are based on actual words, while others like "coterminosity" [having the same boundaries, hence also used to mean bodies or persons acting in concert] are adaptations of current vocabulary.
Predictors of beaconicity - What makes councils good
Coterminosity - Having same boundaries
Improvement levers - the tools to get the job done
Place shaping - creating places where people can thrive
Revenue stream - money/income
Slippage - delay
Holistic governance - taking everything in
Stakeholder - the people with a stake in things working
Synergy - thing working better when done together
Transformational - to do with change
Examples like "synergies" [co-operative working, or improved effects produced as a result of combined action] get around difficult circumlocutions [using a number of words where a shorter phrase or a single word would probably do].
But others might be seen as having been used to make a speaker or writer seem more important or clever. "Revenue stream" [meaning money or income] and "symposium" [or meeting] being among the likely examples.
"Sometimes it's people trying to impress. They think if they write long, complicated sentences and paragraphs it makes them appear super-intelligent. But actually, it's quite the opposite," says Peter Griffiths, secretary of the Plain English Campaign.
"Sometimes it's a matter of just getting into a particular style of writing. Perhaps their jargon is easily understood by people they work with. It's when that jargon strays outside into the public arena that it becomes totally meaningless.
And it must be said that many of the terms trawled up by the LGA over the course of the last 12 months are rarely, if ever, used in communication with ordinary council taxpayers. They may be in internal documents, or in publicly available material that is likely to be read mainly by members of the public who would be able to translate the information.
"Beaconicity" is from a Department for Communities and Local Government study and "coterminosity" is hardly a common sight in council leaflets. The government has a "minister for transformational government".
EXAMPLE OF USAGE
Building on previous sectoral reviews the pre-tender review will take a holistic approach, looking towards future service delivery and contracting arrangements
But there are still plenty of terms that routinely cross over.
Who has not seen leaflets or letters referring to "best practice", "bottom-up" [based on ordinary people], "community engagement" [getting ordinary people involved] and "stakeholder" [organisation, or occasionally person, with a stake in the success of something]?
And then are terms like "subsidiarity" [the principle by which something should be done locally unless it is better done at a higher level of government] or "slippage" [delay] that occasionally make it out into the wider world.
And slippage is a classic example of another trend towards obfuscation - that motivated by a desire to hide a problem or failure.
"Collateral damage" [damage in a military operation to people or property that had not been targeted] is the grandfather of this class of corporate speak. It both avoids a circumlocution and at the same time draws a veil over what is often the accidental killing of civilians.
Thus when a council talks of a "service delivery failure" it may feel that is better than admitting to forgetting to empty your bins.
Karen Day, editor of the Local Government Chronicle, a weekly publication which has highlighted some of the language that councils use, believes we should not heap blame on those in town halls.
"Most of these came from central government and then people take them and use them. It isn't a fault thing, it's a culture thing."
Below is a selection of your comments.
I agree with Alexander, I think this is unfair. Communication with stakeholders generally tends to be conducted according to best practice principles defining both content and format. Officers will be the key audience for most briefings and documentation pertaining (amongst other things) to organisational synergies, internal revenue accounting (and capital programmes), issues relating to performance management (especially BVPIs and the best value regime in general) and inter and intra-directorate relationships, both horizontal and vertical. Although local government has to be aware of the inevitable partnership focus that is arising over 2008/09, particularly considering the impact of CAA, pressures relating to organisational coterminosity, and the inevitable impact that this will have on the nature and content of such communications (particularly with non-professional, third sector groups) the use of precise terminology will, and should, inevitably result in the use of technical language.
Or perhaps I have been working here too long.
When my local unitary authority undergoes service delivery failures it has little bottom-up community engagement, mainly because of the low level of stakeholder jargon comprehensibility. I wonder if it is a case of supra-ocular wool traction?
It took nineteen words in the above article to define 'subsidiarity', which is why the word is used by policymakers in lieu of describing the concept each time. All specialisms have language that isn't particularly accessible to the general public, and there is nothing wrong with that. You are not insisting, surely, that medical professionals start using the phrase "hurty-sore chest" rather than "angina pectoris" when speaking amongst themselves?
I work for a local authority and we have a guide to clear communications and are told to avoid using confusing terms and stick to plain english when addressing customers.
Tryphena Penswick, Preston, UK
They may be comprehensible to "a large portion" of the working public, Annie - but the point about local councils is that they work for 100 per cent of the public. So they should use terms that everyone, regardless of their intelligence or education, should understand. That's what's wrong with the jargon. You might understand it but many people don't.
It is baffling at times, but there is often a good reason for it all. For example 'Best Practice' doesn't just mean doing things well, it is shorthand for a principle of getting the best value for the least money, monitoring outcomes and making sure procedures work. 'Best Practice' suddenly seems quite catchy doesn't it?
This article seems to be encouraging a culture of dumbing down to reach the lowest common denominator. Professionals shouldn't be expected by the media to reduce the complexity of terminology to make it more understandable, as the target audience which reads the subject matter will no doubt understand the wording anyway. We should be encouraging people to become more educated, and thus understand the intricacies of the English language more, not demanding its generalisation for readability purposes.
Dan, York, UK
I used to work in local government, and trust me, half of the people using this jargon don't understand it themselves. Anyone fancy a diagonal slice stakeholder/partner working group to help deliver the vibrant contemporary leisure offer? The same people were not safe to be left alone with sharp objects.
Rob, Telford, UK
Our council used to refer to the rubbish dump as the 'Civic Amenity Site'.
Geoff, Upminster, England.
'Obfuscate'? Surely you simply mean - 'confuse'?
Will Parker, London, UK
This is slightly unfair. Local government is complex and technical and has some complex and technical terms. Words like placeshaping, coterminosity etc all have specific meanings to local government professionals. I'm sure that if you were to read the internal documents from a medical conference there would be similarly odd terms. This is not to say that communications with the public cannot be improved but as the article shows local government is making efforts to do that too.
The term "stakeholders" is used frequently where I work. It always conjures up in my mind a vision of an angry mob, with torches and pitchforks - and, of course, the aforementioned stakes - charging Dracula's castle.
Stephanie Hudson, Brixton, London
Are we still allowed to use the phrase "dumbing down" when posting comments to this website? I would have thought things like "revenue stream", "best practice", "slippage" and "stakeholder" seem quite obvious to anyone who cares about the subject matter, though I'm not sure about that "beacon of mediocrity" phrase.
Ed, Clacton, UK
I don't think this is in any way specific to councils - almost every term you quote in this article is used frequently in the private sector too. And for a large portion of the working public (or indeed just sensible public) the terms are easy to understand. Is this just another opportunity to have a dig at the easy target - local governement?
Annie, Exeter, UK