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Inside Out: I'm on a plain English crusade

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At a management team meeting last week, I suddenly realised I was talking gobbledygook and even I didn’t know what I meant.

Colleagues were earnestly nodding, but I’m sure they had no idea what I was on about either.

Apparently my problem is shared across local government. A recent survey by Trinity Mirror Data Unit showed that people needed 12.6 years of education, just above GCSE, to understand the average council paper.

One council was so clever citizens needed postgraduate qualifications to have a glimmer of what they were up to.

Stephen Hawkins explained the meaning of the universe and everything in his book A Brief History of Time using GCSE-level language and reasoning.

Now sensitised to the obtuse, I see it everywhere. A chief executive was quoted in a recent report on “lean systems thinking”. According to this chief, no organisation can survive without it.

“Our way is the way we do things. Our way is integrated within the council and our staff understand it. Lean systems drive everything we do. The five overriding principles of Lean are: identify customers and specify value; identify and map the value stream; create flow by eliminating waste; respond to customer pull; and pursue perfection.”

What on earth does it mean? I think it means: “We know what you want and we will try to provide it as cheaply as possible.” Answers on a postcard please.

Standing back, we are dreadful at explaining ourselves. I am no expert on the use of language but its prime purpose is to communicate.

The above quote hides meaning rather than explains anything. The motivations for the use of obscure language are probably complex. It makes you sound clever. It can hide the fact that you don’t really know what to do but gives the impression you do. It can dress up the unpalatable. The above quote could be saying to staff: “We will squeeze the pips out of you and pay you low wages.”

I am now on a plain English crusade. It will be time consuming. First priority is council meeting papers.

I’m going to start reading them in draft and sit down with the authors and make sure I know what they mean. It will be a process of organisational learning that enhances a mutual outcome of community understanding.

FIND OUT MORE LGCplus.com/5022821.article or email LGCinsider@gmail.com

The one thing he won’t comment on is his identity…

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Your investment in the transformation that is required to further this important communications agenda will no doubt release long term benefits for partners and stakeholders both within the corporate body of the council and in the wider operating environment.

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