Today CIO advises CIOs who want to widen their influence to “cut the jargon and stick to plain English as you seek to widen your -influence. It’ll help you to be taken seriously in the boardroom too”.
“Forget all that corporate speak – step up to the plate, post it through the letterbox. The best way for a CIO to demonstrate that they’re aligned to the business is to show they understand every one of the business processes.”
It adds that “corporate buzzwords usually betray someone who is covering up their lack of understanding of the business….If you really know your subject, you can express it in layman’s terms.”
The article coincides with a report, which was published yesterday, by the House of Commons’ Public Administration Committee which criticizes the jargon that’s over-used in public life (and used a great deal in the IT industry).
The report quotes Ian Watmore, the former Government CIO, who told MPs: “I doubt that any document resident in Whitehall would totally pass the plain English test”.
The committee’s report is called “Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language”. It says:
Jargon – the good thing about it
- Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly.
- It also helps develop group bonds among staff in an organisation or profession.
Jargon – bad when it’s used:
- out of place, especially when dealing with the wider public.
- to obscure meaning (examples below), or distort or confuse.
- to dress up a simple idea
- to hide the fact that the speaker or writer doesn’t have enough information to know what they are writing or talking about
- as a substitute for clear thinking
The Public Administration Committee concluded that “bad official language which results in tangible harm – such as preventing someone from receiving the benefits or services to which they are entitled – should be regarded as ‘maladministration'”.
“People should feel able to complain about cases of confusing or misleading language, as they would for any other type of poor administration.
“Equally, government and public sector bodies need to respond properly to complaints about bad official language; and if they do not, people should be encouraged to take their complaints to the relevant Ombudsman.”
These are some of the examples quoted in the report. I’ve split them into categories, and have added one or two.
Bad language (according to the committee’s report)
– holistic governance
– step changes
– public domains
– stakeholder engagements
– across the pieces
– level playing fields
– going forwards
The meaninglessly vague:
– rising horizons
– projects are developed through co-design with communities and delivered through a service improvement methodology
– delivering further third sector funding streams in order to rationalise delivery and to take advantage of existing funding mechanisms (Cabinet Office annual report).
– successful innovations will be mainstreamed
– The capital investment strategy will continue to renew and modernise further education establishments to create state of the art facilities.
– An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology.
– The risk management system is embedded within business processes
– long-term sustainability of equality and diversity
– The programme is founded on a robust evidence base and evaluation strategy
– At the level of service delivery in particular there remain significant practical, philosophical and resource barriers to full integration.
Words and phrases the public see as civil service-speak:
– core values
– new models of care
– a quality and outcomes framework
– best practice flowing readily to the frontline
– openness on quality of outcomes
– unlocking talent
– customer [in place of patient, pupil or student]
– purchaser/provider [for buyer and seller]
– identify additional capital resources – find more money
– significant capital expenditure – a lot of money
– jobseeker [unemployed]
– teething troubles [we don’t know yet what’s gone wrong or how bad things are]
– conventional procurement [an open and competitive tender, not a stitched-up deal]
– risk transfer strategy [the risk ultimately comes back to the public sector but is outwardly taken on by private sector]
– SPV – Special Purpose Vehicle – a means by which even limited accountability is bypassed
– optimism bias – making allowance in the contract for £1m in every £10m you expect to overspend
For budget or staff cuts:
– realignment of resources
– efficiency savings
Using the abstract to avoid the concrete:
– “It would be wrong to impose on that morning more order than it had” [It was chaotic beyond belief.]
Some of the best passages from the report of the Public Administration Committee:
“Mr Watmore was unable to explain the meaning of the passage. He conceded that
‘documents written by people in senior positions can often be very inaccessible to
David Crystal [Honorary Professor of Linguistics, Bangor University] told us:
“Every group has its jargon. There is no group on this earth that does not have a jargon. It is when that jargon becomes opaque to the outsider, when the people say, ‘It is not just enough for us to talk to each other, we have to talk to the outside world’ and they forget the demands of the audience, that it gets tricky.”
“Jargon or pseudo-technical language can be used by politicians and others to dress up
an otherwise simple idea, or to hide the fact that the speaker or writer doesn’t really
understand what they are writing or talking about.
“Sterile jargon is the enemy of clear thought. This is often the case when it comes to terms that originate from the world of business (especially from management consultancy), which have increasingly intruded themselves into government. We received several examples during the course of our inquiry, including the following.
“Letter from the Minister of State for Care Services to Roger Gale MP:
“Pacesetters aims to tackle inequalities in health services and in the workplace arising
out of discrimination and disadvantage. The programme is founded on a robust
evidence base and evaluation strategy. Its projects are developed through co-design
with communities and delivered through a service improvement methodology…We
anticipate that most interventions worked on will be for a period of one year–after
which successful innovations will be mainstreamed into the work of the trusts and
spread nationally. This will ensure long-term sustainability of equality and diversity
into core business.”
“Too often official language distorts or confuses meaning. It can prevent public understanding of policies and their consequences, and can also deter people from getting access to public services and benefits.”
“George Orwell [warned against] “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
“George Orwell wrote that political language was “designed to make lies sound truthful
andmurder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to purewind”. Several types of language used by politicians and civil servantsmatch this description. Political spin and obfuscating language areused to disguise what may be politically embarrassing activities orunpalatable truths.”
“Tessa Jowell MP, now the Minister for the Cabinet Office, said in 2004 that she kept a “little book of bollocks” containing instances of government jargon and gobbledegook.
‘I have what I call a bollocks list where I just sit in meetings and I write down some of the absurd language we use – and we are all guilty of this, myself included. The risk is when you have been in government for eight years you begin to talk the language which is not the language of the real world.'”
“Michael Gove MP has written that: Since becoming a Member of Parliament I’ve been learning a new language…No one ever uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word, or a concrete example, where a Latinate construction or a next-to-meaningless abstraction can be found.”
Paul Flynn MP:
“If everyone speaks in this plain, sort of utility English, life is going to become very boring, is it not?”
Me: Does Flynn have a point – that affected, overly-simple language would give pedants as much to criticize as obfuscating jargon?
Bad language – the Use and Abuse of official language – Public Administration Committee
The jargon council leaders want banned – IT Projects Blog
Ian Watmore – no verbiage – IT Projects blog
Jargon and cliches cost council staff – IT Projects blog