This article by Oliver Wright featured in the ‘i’ newspaper on 24 July. In a nicely dry tone it describes a new online writing style guide aimed at outlawing Whitehall jargon. It highlights some lovely examples of departmental gobbledygook and makes a simple plea for clear and concise writing. Amen to that.
As the fictional permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby once said: “If you ask me for a straight answer, then I shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another in terms of the average of departments, then in the final analysis it is probably true to say, that at the end of the day, in general terms, you would probably find that, not to put too fine a point on it, there probably wasn’t very much in it one way or the other.”
But no more.
Britain’s cadre of real life civil servants have finally been banned from using the jargon that has kept the comedy writers from Yes Minister to the Thick Of It in gags for years.
Officials have been issued with an online style guide that tells them, for the first time, what unacceptable Whitehallese is.
Out goes ‘deliver’. Pizzas and post are delivered, it points out, not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’.
Officials can no long ‘drive’ anything out (unless it is cattle) or ‘foster’ (unless it is children).
Tackling is also banned (unless Sir Humphrey or Terri Coverley are playing rugby or football) while the ‘key’ should always be in the lock.
Overall more than 30 terms of jargon that have crept into Government announcements and policy documents over the years have been placed off-limits.
There will be no more advancing, collaborating, combating or pledging.
People will no longer be empowered. Government will no longer facilitate while even ministers will not be focusing on areas of policy.
The style guide has been created by the team who put together the Government’s new website Gov.uk – which aims to bring together every Government service in a single format that is easy to navigate and use.
In the forward to the style guide the authors point out that this aim will be negated if everything published if full of official gobbledy gook.
“We lose trust from our users if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon,” they point out.
“Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without these words.”
Sarah Richards, who worked on the guide, said plain English was not the same a dumbing down.
“The style is about writing clearly, concisely and without jargon. Everyone can benefit from simplicity,” she wrote on a blog launching the site.
“Some people have previously seen this as ‘dumbing down’ but being open and accessible to everyone isn’t ‘dumb’ – it’s our responsibility.”
But a quick glance at recent Government press notices suggest that some officials still have something to learn.
Take this recent ‘news story’ from the Cabinet Office – the department that is also responsible for Gov.uk.
“The government is establishing a Global Learning Exchange on impact investment. Impact investment provides capital to deliver both social and financial results.
“This multi-stakeholder exchange will focus on sharing best practice on ‘what works’ in impact investing. It will provide a shared platform to debate and create ideas as well as inviting new voices to the field.
“Social impact investment has a critical role to play in helping entrepreneurs around the world to identify sustainable solutions to the most challenging social issues. The G8 Social Impact Investment Forum represents an exciting point in the development of the field – bringing together, for the first time, government, industry and civil society leaders to identify ways to catalyse the global market.”
It makes Sir Humphrey sound erudite.
But Steve Jenner from Plain English Campaign said any attempt to improve things was very welcome.
“For many years government has been presented to the public in finest government departmental gobbledygook,” he said.
“The fact that much of this is unintentionally hilarious suggests how bad things had become.
“Plain English Campaign applauds this attempt to encourage clarity, though, and would be happy to assist any government department in this.”
Tongue firmly in cheek a Cabinet Office Spokeswoman said: “Going forward, we will be advancing a pledge to deliver and utilise clearer language on our award-winning GOV.UK.
“We are keen to foster improved cooperation to empower further the public and are delighted that the Independent has recognised this drive to deploy and leverage a streamlined vocabulary.
“But seriously, we want to get better at this, and the Content Guide is one of the reasons GOV.UK has over 1.3m users a month.”
* Slimming down (processes don’t diet)
* Foster (unless it is children)
* Agenda (unless it is for a meeting)
* Commit/pledge (we’re either doing something or we’re not)
* Deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)
* Deploy (unless it is military or software)
* Dialogue (we speak to people)
* Key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’)
* Progress (as a verb – what are you actually doing?)
* Promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
* Strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)
* Tackling (unless it is rugby, football or some other sport)
* Transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
* Going forward (unlikely we are giving travel directions)