The recession-inspired mantra of “value for money” means that the public service is being examined and monitored as never before. This puts greater pressure on the public sector to communicate clearly with the public; to explain its actions or decisions transparently and simply.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. We’ve all been there. You receive a letter peppered with so many technical terms and acronyms that you only vaguely understand the message. Or you open a report that is so full of jargon and waffle that you’d need a dictionary, a mind-reader and several days to work out its meaning. Most of us give up the battle because we don’t have the time (or inclination) to translate all the gobbledygook that litters our lives.
A quick browse around public-sector websites reveals some gems. “Ideally, there would be no need to use mechanised transport (i.e. use soft modes), thereby having zero greenhouse gas emissions.” What exactly is a soft mode of transport? Is it walking and cycling? If so, why not use those words?
The clunky language in this one sounds like it was written by a jargon-robot rather than a real person: “The assessment considers whether the intervention is likely to move in the positive or negative direction, or is likely to have no effect (i.e. it is neutral).”
The answer to the problems of gobbledygook, gibberish, waffle and jargon-overload is plain English. This means writing clearly and simply for your target audience, but it doesn’t mean “dumbing down” or appearing unprofessional. The aim is to ensure that all readers get your message the first time they read each paragraph.
One enthusiastic champion of plain English in the public service is the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly. “In the public service, you’re often writing to a disparate group of people with different education, backgrounds and abilities to understand.
“Using plain English enables you to impart information directly, clearly and concisely – and doesn’t prevent understanding by the use of jargon. People think formal writing has to be flowery, but that isn’t the case. Plain English isn’t ‘Ladybird’ English either.”
The public service has its own language of jargon and acronyms, which is useful as it makes internal communication easier (although it makes assimilation for new staff more difficult). However, problems arise when this Civil Service-speak spills over into communications with the general public. It can mean that resources are wasted and opportunities are lost.
“People can feel inferior or stupid if they don’t understand,” says Ms O’Reilly. “People should not be made to feel excluded by specialist or elitist language.”
Not using plain English can make a problem worse, she says. For example, when a person who has been refused a state benefit cannot understand the letter from the department, “jargon can add to the sense of frustration”. She points out: “It’s the duty of the public sector to provide services to the public. One core critical area is to communicate. Everything flows from that.”
Unfortunately, some state-funded agencies can’t even explain what they do in comprehensible English. On its homepage, one research body describes its role: “to add value to the work of its constituent bodies through collaborative policy development initiatives”. Hmmm.
On a positive note, the use of plain English is becoming more widespread. For example, the Central Statistics Office has developed its own writing guide in an attempt to achieve a consistency of (plain) style, the Department of Social and Family Affairs has a plain English policy and an increasing number of departments and agencies encourage staff to attend writing-skills courses.
In these challenging times, good communication is vital, believes Ms O’Reilly because “we need to continue breaking down the barriers between public service and the public”.
This article first appeared in The Public Sector Times, September 2009.