Plain speaking

This project led by the Democratic Society has been focusing on how to improve the mechanisms we use for consultation. But if we are going to involve and engage more people, we also need to change the words we use to talk about policy.

Plain English is mandatory on the new GOV.UK website. The Government Digital Service has created a useful list of ‘words to avoid’ as part of its Content principles. These include:

  • agenda
  • collaborate
  • deliver
  • dialogue
  • empower
  • facilitate
  • focusing
  • key
  • transforming
  • utilise.

I’ve regularly used all of these words in my own work as a (sort-of) policy wonk, and indeed the first sentence of this post breaks both the letter and the spirit of the GDS guidelines. I could shrug and suggest that such words are ‘part of the uniform’ and that few people in the policy world would (or do) question their use. I could also plead that there’s a lot of policy writing that’s much worse (less clear) than the stuff I tend to write. Neither of these would be good excuses though. Policy wonks, civil servants and policymakers need to change how they speak, how they write – and ultimately how they think – if they want to empower (sorry) more people to participate in policy.

The words we use to describe politics and policy matter. As the GDS guide says: “We lose trust from our users if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We need to be specific, use plain English and be very clear about what we are doing. In policies, and across GOV.UK, we can generally do that very well without these words.”

Not only can we often do without these words, we need to if we’re going to open-up policy making.

One of my favourite pieces of writing is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Orwell argued that there is a link between the health of our politics and the clarity of our language. As Orwell notes: “[Our language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” There’s an echo of this in the GDS guidance, in its criticism of ’empty, meaningless text’ and the need for plain English to be ‘clear about what we are doing’. This last point provokes a further criticism – that our lazy language excludes people from policy, and obscures what we do from greater public scrutiny. This exclusion produces poor policy analysis and so poor policy, because instead of practical intelligence and insight from practitioners (for example in public services), we tend to rely on the familiar assumptions held in policy circles or on personal ideology instead.

I know many policy wonks think that some of our pseudo-technical social sciency-type language isn’t jargon, but rather is the professional terminology necessary for precision in meaning. This is rarely the case in my opinion. But not only is jargon bad (poor at conveying specific meaning), it’s also often anti-democratic. Excluding people leads to a lack of public legitimacy in the polices that result from consultation. What are we trying to keep people from? Orwell’s point was that truth in language is closely connected to truth in politics. As he wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Jargon and inflated style are often a clue that the author is trying to obscure the reality of a situation. If we use jargon in consultations, not only are we are inadvertently excluding people, we are also in various ways attempting to conceal the truth from the public and possibly from ourselves. The level of public engagement in politics, as measured at least in voting turnout or the membership of political parties, suggests that we’ve been found out.

We should (try to) speak in plain English. Alongside better ways to consult, developing better policy depends on using better, ordinary language. Otherwise we’re in danger of talking to ourselves and saying nothing.

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3 replies on “Plain speaking”

  1. When I was a civil servant I pinned up the six rules from Politics and the English Language on an A3 sheet above our team’s workspace. I’m not sure whether that makes me a model communicator or a nightmare boss.

  2. To be slightly provocative – isn’t this all a bit motherhood-and-apple-pie? Government policy is written in woolly and lazy language, and shouldn’t be – all agreed.

    So why is it? What process or cultural changes would improve things? And what is it about the wider environment that policymakers work in that makes it so?

    There’s also some chicken-and-egg going on here: the professional public affairs community around the policymaking process incorporating lobbyists, policy directors and trade press use much the same language when talking amongst themselves. The phases (rightly) banned by GDS when talking to the public are in plenty of corporate communications brochures and websites in the private sector too.

    So is policymakers’ language convoluted because they are attempting to hedge their bets or mislead; because they’re lazy or under pressure and don’t have time to edit for clarity; or because that’s just the way policy is discussed between policy professionals?

    None of this denies the importance of communicating clearly to people whose job isn’t policymaking – but we need to explore the underlying pressures a bit more deeply.

    1. Thanks Steph – yes, the point was to provoke the questions you outline and to garner a range of views on what is causing this problem. In the post, I end up suggesting that it could be in part because obscure language helps to obscure what we do from greater public scrutiny, and perhaps even from honest critical examination of our own views – which is perhaps pretty provocative. Will Hutton’s piece in The Observer today kind of echoes this point; writing about the Autumn statement this week, he says: “Economists cloak what is happening in technocratic language – the economy is slowly “rebalancing”, going through “structural adjustment” while there is need for “fiscal consolidation”. But there is a different language to describe what is really happening. Britain is displaying acute economic dysfunctionality. It is a crisis of under-consumption, over-accumulation, under-production, acute inequality and under-investment. It is what commentators on left and right would have described in any year between 1890 and 1980 – before the free market “counter-revolution” took off – as a first-order crisis in capitalism.” Whether you agree with the politics of this or not, I think his point is similar – we lie to ourselves when we use certain language, and this has a knock-on effect on the political culture (or more plainly: people don’t trust the political class). A possible reason is that we don’t really know how to solve some of the problems we face, but don’t want to admit this, so try to minimise the problems somewhat. Hutton’s comment is at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/02/osborne-phantom-billions?INTCMP=SRCH

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