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.
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.