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Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 11:25 UK

Decoding local government lingo

"Holistic governance" is apparently unrelated to massage
Councils are being discouraged from littering their bumf with cliches and jargon. But where did this lingo come from?

1. Sustainable communities
Sustainability made its debut as a government buzzword in a World Commission on Environment and Development report, published in April 1987. Now the word permeates government - we are encouraged to adopt sustainable living initiatives, invest in sustainable energy and think sustainable development. But Richard Stokoe, Head of News at the Local Government Association (LGA), says "sustainable communities" is "meaningless phraseology" because it can mean anything to anyone. In May 2007, Sutton Council announced that it wanted to "turn an entire community into one large sustainable suburb". Mr Stokoe fails to see the relevance, wryly asking: "Why, was it sinking?"

2. Symposium
According to the LGA website, Caroline Flint spoke at a "healthy communities, healthy partnerships - a learning symposium" event in 2006, and part of the LGA business plan 2007-2008 was to strengthen relationships with their partners by "conducting at least one symposium/forum". Marie Clair, from the Plain English Campaign, says "meeting" or "group of people" is more fitting. "It's not a matter of intelligence," she says, "it's about using language which is appropriate for the audience."

engagement ring
Engagement rings are designed as signs of strong commitment
3. Engagement
The Ministry of Justice deals in "democratic engagement" and explores "how to harness new ways of engaging", while the Improvement and Development Agency talks about "community empowerment and engagement". Mr Stokoe says "engaging" is simply a grand way of talking or listening to people. "As far as I am concerned, 'engaged' is when someone has a ring on their finger, or a toilet is busy," he says. "As for empowerment, I am completely lost."

4. Welcome
"We know what welcome is, it's on doormats and lots of notices, but when was the last time you approached someone and said welcome and not hello?" says Ms Clair. But politicians use "welcome" all the time - it is constantly welcoming initiatives, investment, arrests and survey findings. Not to mention donations. Ms Clair thinks more unfamiliar terms are used when things are written down because people lose their human side. "There seems to be a huge distance between pen and mouth," she says.

5. Holistic governance
Ms Clair dismisses holistic governance as "gobbledygook". She breaks down the words to try and make sense of them. "I think of holistic in terms of massage therapy, and governance as keeping something in order. If you put them together, I suppose it could be about massaging government?" she says. But the mystifying term is widespread among local councils. Hull City council's Internal Audit Strategy for 2007-2008 to 2009-2010 is to "be part of a holistic governance approach", the Department of Communities and Local Government praises a National Youth Homelessness Scheme for its "multi-agency holistic approach" and local government policies frequently combine "joined-up" initiatives with holistic targets.

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