Luke Blair: Sector struggles with plain English

I witnessed two different elements of the public sector trying to talk to each other last week in an effort at joined-up government. They failed completely.

The conversation - between a primary care trust and a council - was like watching an argument in a shop between a customer and assistant, one side misunderstanding what the other was saying, even though the basic elements of the situation were there for all to see.

While one side spoke of 'empowerment', 'cross-cutting themes' and 'direction of travel', the other looked baffled and asked questions such as: 'Yes, but what is it that you actually do?'

It was quite an amusing dialogue to start with, then frustrating, and ultimately rather depressing. After all, if public officials cannot talk easily and effectively to each other, what quality of service are they going to be delivering, especially when collaboration is required?

It should not really be that difficult, and yet it is amazing how many times public sector practitioners struggle with plain English. In an effort to overcome this, the Local Government Association published a list of 200 banned words when talking to stakeholders.

I agree with the sentiment - jargon helps no-one, least of all the public sector, and it is right that robust efforts be made to avoid it. But language should not be constrained within strict parameters. It needs flexibility and freedom to work properly.

And some of the examples in the jargon-busting toolkit are just wrong. For example, it is important to distinguish between 'output' and 'outcome' - they do not just both mean 'results'. And different public sector bodies do sometimes share the same boundaries, in which case 'co-terminous' is actually quite useful - it does not mean 'singing from the same hymn sheet'.

The fact is, some issues are quite complicated and it is patronising to think no-one has the capacity to understand them unless they are reduced to some kind of Jeremy Clarkson-style 'tabloidese'.

If you do not agree with me, here is a challenge: try spotting the 'banned' LGA words in this column - there is at least one in every sentence.

- Luke Blair is a director at the London Commuications Agency.

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