Government 'jargon ban' draws mixed response

News Analysis

Government 'jargon ban' draws mixed response

Tony Collins

If jargon were banned, techies, IT staff, consultants and contractors - including those who work in sales and marketing in the technology industry - would find it difficult to talk to each other.

This explains why IT professionals reacted with hostility when the Local Government Association published a list of words and phrases it wants to see banned.

The list includes jargon that is the currency of communication in the technology professions - baseline, benchmarking, best practice, capabilities, early win, enabler, functionality, interface, outsourcing, risk based, slippage, stakeholder, transparency, transformational and vision.

But such jargon is the life-blood of IT departments.

Outsourcing is a popular search term on Google, for example, and the Cabinet Office publishes "capability" reviews on how well government departments are performing.

"Transformational government" is the name given to a series of IT-based initiatives to save money and improve public sector IT in central and local government.

A lack of "stakeholder" engagement is a key factor in the failure of many large IT-based programmes and projects. Numerous NHS board papers refer to "slippage" on the £12.7bn NHS IT scheme.

And IBM has compiled a "Jargon and General Computing Dictionary" which runs to 65 pages. A typical entry is "noconning", a form of no-contact, and refers to people who avoid your call.

Computer Weekly's IT Projects blog had a record number of views within hours of publishing the association's list - and IT professionals were quick to respond with their criticism. One commentator asked, "Has our culture reached a point where words such as: advocate, autonomous, capacity, cohesive, enhance, robust, holistic, functionality, initiative, proactive (I am too angry to go on) are classed as incomprehensible?"

He added, "The vast majority of the banned terms are common words. I cannot believe the wealth of support for this policy. Yes, local councils should be clear and concise in their language, but why can't they use 'normal' words?"

Another said, "This is nonsense. Clear language is fine but many of these words are appropriate and valid."

Not all of those who left comments were against the list. "Only last week I came across this monstrosity "The Authority recognises that future delivery of strategic objectives will necessitate a culture of embedded outcome-focused co-operative working."

The Local Government Association suggests alternatives to its banned words and phrases. But it is unlikely CIOs would take an idea, dream or belief to their boards instead of a vision. And so the banned list is likely to make little difference. That is a pity because the list includes words and phrases which obscure meaning, are needlessly vague, or are strikingly ugly - predictors of beaconicity, conditionality, coterminosity, and place shaping for example.

The association is not trying to ban jargon as used by all professions in their communications with each other. It wants a ban on the jargon when the public sector is communicating with the public.

The Economist "style guide" has perhaps the best advice on when to avoid jargon. It says that technical terms should be used in their proper context and not out of it, and that jargon should not be used to obscure the truth.

If you are tempted to write about affirmative action or corporate governance you should explain what you mean, says the guide. Above all, it says, avoid jargon that tries to dignify nonsense with seriousness. "You may have to think harder if you are not to use jargon, but you can still be precise."


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