Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language - Public Administration Committee Contents

2 Bad official language

4.  Politics and government are public activities, and so the language used by politicians and officials should be honest, accessible and understandable. Yet official language is often criticised for being the opposite. Groups such as the Plain English Campaign and the Local Government Association have drawn attention to the variety of baffling terms used in government; and the LGA publishes an annual list of banned words, the most recent one including such examples as "place shaping", "re-baselining" and "holistic governance".[2] Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, now the Minister for the Cabinet Office, said in 2004 that she kept a "little book of bollocks" containing instances of government jargon and gobbledegook:

I have what I call a bollocks list where I just sit in meetings and I write down some of the absurd language we use—and we are all guilty of this, myself included. The risk is when you have been in government for eight years you begin to talk the language which is not the language of the real world.[3]

5.  The unlovely language of this unreal world floats along on a linguistic sea of roll-outs, step changes, public domains, fit for purposes, stakeholder engagements, across the pieces, win-wins, level playing fields and going forwards. Michael Gove MP has written that:

Since becoming a Member of Parliament I've been learning a new language…No one ever uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word, or a concrete example, where a Latinate construction or a next-to-meaningless abstraction can be found.[4]

6.  We distinguish between two main types of official language in this report. What we call "political language" is, as the name suggests, often (but not exclusively) used by politicians in explaining and defending their policies. "Administrative language", meanwhile, is typically used by officials and administrators in their dealings with the public. In this chapter, we outline some of the varieties of specifically bad official language that can be found in government, in both political and administrative contexts, and the damaging consequences that can result.

7.  This is not to suggest that all official language is bad. Indeed, the Plain English Campaign has found that it is the financial and legal professions, rather than government, that cause the most concern through their use of confusing language.[5] Much academic language, especially in the social sciences, is notoriously impenetrable. Nevertheless, our public call for examples of good and bad official language elicited no examples of good language, but plenty of examples of bad language.

8.  We now explore some of the damaging consequences that bad official language can have. We consider first the way in which bad political language can inhibit both public understanding of policy and original thought; and then examine the harm that bad administrative language can cause to the public.

Political language: distorting or disguising meaning

9.  George Orwell wrote that political language was "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".[6] Several types of language used by politicians and civil servants match this description (if not quite to the extent depicted by Orwell). Political spin and obfuscating language are used to disguise what may be politically embarrassing activities or unpalatable truths. Politicians have also been known to use grandiloquently opaque language to give the impression that they have something important to say, when in fact they do not.

10.  The first of Orwell's linguistic dislikes, distorting or evasive language, is routinely practised by both politicians and civil servants. It can be seen in the use of euphemisms—referring to "downsizing", "realignment of resources" or "efficiency savings", for example, rather than talking about budget or staff cuts. Silky language can be used to obscure meaning, along the lines of Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby. Simon Hoggart described an attempt by the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson[7] to use emollient language to play down the row about government spin and special advisers that erupted at the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions in 2001:

For instance, when talking about the Jo Moore, Stephen Byers and Martin Sixsmith imbroglio, Sir Richard said: "The evidence must be that this discontentment built up and this behaviour was such as could not go on." In English, this would be translated as: "People were being quite outrageous and had to stop." Or: "There are issues about the framework which quite legitimately need to be addressed."…this means "some of these guys were right out of control and there was nothing to stop them."…"It would be wrong to impose on that morning more order than it had." (This means: "It was chaotic beyond belief.")[8]

11.  In his remarks to us, former Cabinet minister Rt Hon David Blunkett MP likewise noted a tendency among civil servants to use language that disguised rather than revealed their true intent:

The civil service always use the term "delighted" for just about anything that ministers are asked to do—which completely takes away any meaning for the word at all! I used to eliminate it from all my letters and reports. They also have wonderful phrases like "stand ready" which actually means we're doing nothing about this unless we're absolutely forced to do so![9]

12.  The use of professional jargon or technical language out of context can often lead to misunderstanding and confusion. In itself, jargon is no bad thing: defenders say that it acts as necessary professional shorthand, used to convey complicated ideas succinctly. It can also help develop group bonds among staff in an organisation or profession. The problem comes when jargon is used out of place, especially when dealing with the wider public, as David Crystal told us:

Every group has its jargon. There is no group on this earth that does not have a jargon. It is when that jargon becomes opaque to the outsider, when the people say, "It is not just enough for us to talk to each other, we have to talk to the outside world" and they forget the demands of the audience, that it gets tricky.[10]

13.  Jargon or pseudo-technical language can be used by politicians and others to dress up an otherwise simple idea, or to hide the fact that the speaker or writer doesn't really understand what they are writing or talking about.[11] Sterile jargon is the enemy of clear thought. This is often the case when it comes to terms that originate from the world of business (especially from management consultancy), which have increasingly intruded themselves into government. We received several examples during the course of our inquiry, including the following.

Letter from the Minister of State for Care Services to Roger Gale MP:

Pacesetters aims to tackle inequalities in health services and in the workplace arising out of discrimination and disadvantage. The programme is founded on a robust evidence base and evaluation strategy. Its projects are developed through co-design with communities and delivered through a service improvement methodology...We anticipate that most interventions worked on will be for a period of one year—after which successful innovations will be mainstreamed into the work of the trusts and spread nationally. This will ensure long-term sustainability of equality and diversity into core business.[12]

House of Commons business plan for 2008/09:

FY 2008/09: objectives:…To ensure a risk management system is embedded within business processes, allowing for risks to be escalated up and down the organisation as necessary.[13]

Cabinet Office annual report and accounts, 2008-2009:

Savings on the core grant-in-aid delivering the Change-Up programme, against the counterfactual of an inflationary increase and re-prioritisation of the OTS budget to fund a wider range of investment programmes from the 2007-08 baseline amount to around £4.8m realised in 2008-09. Capacitybuilders is now delivering further third sector funding streams in order to rationalise delivery and to take advantage of existing funding mechanisms.[14]

14.  Phil Willis MP, Chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee,[15] wrote to us of his Committee's attempt to get the Department's then Permanent Secretary, Ian Watmore, to make sense of such "management speak":

During the evidence session with officials in DIUS we selected at random and read the following extract from the Departmental Report to Mr Watmore:

An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology. The capital investment strategy will continue to renew and modernise further education establishments to create state of the art facilities.

Mr Watmore was unable to explain the meaning of the passage. He conceded that "documents written by people in senior positions can often be very inaccessible to the public" and he undertook that for next year DIUS would "get the plain English people in earlier".[16]

15.  Sometimes those dealing with government, such as pressure groups and special interest groups, make their own contribution to the degradation of language and meaning. Michael Gove MP has given this example of a briefing note received from one such group on the contents of a Queen's Speech:

The onion model set out the Government's vision of what was needed to achieve whole system change. There is an urgent need for still greater integration at every layer of the onion in frontline delivery, processes, strategy and governance. At the level of service delivery in particular there remain significant practical, philosophical and resource barriers to full integration. Further legislative changes at governance level alone will not automatically make it easier to address these barriers.[17]

16.  One of the reasons why bad language of this kind matters is that it can prevent people from understanding the implications of policies. Will Cooper sent us examples of language associated with the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme, which he argued were so ridden with jargon that they hindered public understanding. One example was a Treasury press release that started with this sentence:

A platform for generating increased Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal flow and reducing the costs of tendering will be the outcome of new contract guidelines published by the Treasury Taskforce, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Alan Milburn said today.[18]

17.  While openly admitting a personal bias against the use of PFI, Mr Cooper went on to make this point about the language connected with it:

I understand that the subject [of PFI] is a complex one that requires its own internal lingo, but I feel strongly that the public simply don't know what it is, let alone understand the political principles underlying it, largely because the language used to describe its workings is so eye-wateringly arcane. I would even venture to suggest that this may be one of the prime objectives of PFI: some of the terminology is purposefully euphemistic, the upshot being that the public have neither the confidence nor the understanding to question its mechanics or its prevalence.[19]

18.  Attempts to use language to disguise or distort meaning can feed growing public mistrust of government. Terms such as "extraordinary rendition" and "collateral damage", for instance, have become so well-known that they no longer serve as euphemisms;[20] but the attempt to use such terms to hide unpleasant realities can fuel cynicism about government.

19.  Another damaging effect of bad official language, perhaps less deliberate but no less dangerous, results from the use of stock phrases and terms to substitute for original expression and thought. Simon Hoggart described how such terms can fit together neatly, even if they signify little:

The analogy I would give is that it is a bit like a small child playing with Lego. Each brick in itself is fine. Even phrases like "coterminous stakeholder engagement" have a meaning—it means talking to the people who are affected all the time—but you compress that into a little brick (of three words), you add another brick, and then you put on another brick, and your child suddenly—and we have all seen children do this—suddenly produces something that is not anything at all, it is just a lot of Lego, and it all hangs together but it is absolutely meaningless and has no purpose or function whatsoever.[21]

20.  George Orwell made the same point some fifty years earlier about language that is put together without any apparent reference to thought or meaning. Decrying the use of "ready-made" phrases that stifle original thought and encourage political conformity, he wrote that:

They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connexion between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.[22]

21.  The language used in politics and government matters because politics is a public activity and the services that government provides are public services. The public nature of government and its activities means that politicians and public servants should be required to communicate with people in a straightforward way, using language that people understand. We have encountered numerous examples of official language, however, where meaning has been confused and distorted. Bad language of this kind is damaging because it can both prevent public understanding of policies and inhibit original expression and thought.

Administrative language: alienating the public

22.  Good communication is essential when it involves members of the public trying to deal with the state, such as to pay taxes, apply for benefits or get public services. Yet large parts of the public sector still appear to have some way to go in improving their communications with the public. "Officialese" in administrative language can sometimes have amusing results, as the following extract of a letter from HM Revenue and Customs demonstrates (which, deservedly, won a "Golden Bull" award from the Plain English Campaign):

Thank you for your Tax Returns ended 5th April 2006 & 2007 which we received on 20th December. I will treat your Tax Return for all purposes as though you sent it in response to a notice from us which required you to deliver it to us by the day we received it.[23]

23.  More often, however, confusing or incomprehensible language simply makes dealing with officialdom more complicated than it needs to be. Marie Clair of the Plain English Campaign explained that in her experience the main challenge was getting government bodies to use less confusing bureaucratic language:

…the problem is simply that there are people out there in real-life situations who are suffering because they do not understand the language. That is what the [Plain English Campaign] is concerned about. Those are the things I receive in my inbox on a daily basis and a lot of those are still about government documents...we simply want to see people having a better chance at understanding and using the public information that is available to them in whatever form.[24]

24.  The perpetrators of this variety of official language often fail to consider adequately who they are writing for. Examples of this sort of language are often found in official letters and forms, and can come across as unsympathetic or overly officious. Andrew George MP provided a letter from the Information Commissioner's Office which, as he noted, illustrates how formulaic letter construction can alienate and confuse the reader:

Thank you for your correspondence dated 12 December 2008 in which you complain about the response you received from MOJ.

So we can progress your complaint we need you to provide copies of the following:

  • Your initial request for information to MOJ

Your case has now been closed as there is no further action we are able to take without the documents we have requested. We require these documents as:

  • It provides us with a full set of unedited evidence in support of the complaint
  • It is necessary to provide a copy of the initial request to the public authority when we first notify them of having received a complaint

Once we receive the information we have requested your complaint can be reopened.[25]

25.  The Work and Pensions Committee heard of similar examples of unsympathetic official communications during its inquiry into benefits simplification:

I saw one just recently: an 81-year-old woman who received a five-page letter about Pension Credit weeks after the death of her husband. It had about 50 different sums of money in the statement and was just completely untransparent, even to a CAB adviser. I doubt whether a pension credit expert would have fully understood it, yet letters like that are going out without being seen by anyone. [John Wheatley, Citizens Advice]

I saw a letter the other week asking the claimant for a medical certificate and it was four pages long…A four page letter to ask for a medical certificate is not helpful. [Sue Royston, Citizens Advice][26]

26.  The National Audit Office (NAO) agrees with this line of criticism, concluding that departments and agencies need to be more realistic about how people read and complete forms rather than making assumptions about how citizens should behave.[27] NAO studies have found that lengthy or complex forms can discourage people from applying for benefits and thereby leave needy people out of pocket. An investigation into pensioner poverty found that "difficulty in completing forms" was a major reason why pensioners do not apply for benefits available to them.[28] In the case of one specific benefit, Attendance Allowance (for older people requiring personal care due to disability), the NAO attributed a lower than desired take-up in part to basic confusion over the name of the benefit itself: "Our focus groups showed that the name is widely misconstrued by older people as requiring attendance by the applicant at an old people's centre".[29]

27.  Poor communication by government bodies dealing with the public is a significant concern, especially when large numbers of people are affected. Long, complex official forms, officious letters and confusing requests for information can all deter individuals from attempting to deal with public authorities. This is particularly worrying when it prevents people from getting the benefits or services to which they are entitled.

2   "LGA urges the public sector to ditch jargon to help people during the recession", Local Government Association press release, 18 March 2009 Back

3   "From Newspeak to plain-speaking: Jowell aims to cut out the jargon", Financial Times, 23 December 2004, p 1 Back

4   "Warning: speaking Quango drives you to tears", Times, 8 December 2008, p 22 Back

5   See; see also Q 31 Back

6   Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" Back

7   Now Lord Wilson of Dinton Back

8   "Best of British from the grandee's grandee", Guardian, 15 March 2002, p 2 Back

9   Ev 13 Back

10   Q 3 Back

11   See Christopher Jary, Working with Ministers, 4th edition (National School of Government, 2008), p 65 Back

12   Ev 18 Back

13   Ev 16 Back

14   Cabinet Office, Annual Report and Accounts 2008-2009, HC 442, July 2009, p 85 Back

15   Now the Science and Technology Committee Back

16   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Third Report of Session 2008-09, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, HC 51-I, para 7 Back

17   "Warning: speaking Quango drives you to tears", Times, 8 December 2008, p 22 Back

18   Ev 14 Back

19   Ev 13 Back

20   Q 19 Back

21   Q 8 Back

22   Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" Back

23   See  Back

24   Q 30 Back

25   Ev 20 Back

26   Work and Pensions Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2006-07, Benefits Simplification, HC 463-I, para 249 Back

27   National Audit Office, Difficult Forms: How Government Agencies Interact with Citizens, Session 2002-03, HC 1145, 31 October 2003, p 9 Back

28   National Audit Office, Tackling Pensioner Poverty: Encouraging Take-up of Entitlements, Session 2002-03, HC 37, 20 November 2002, p 25  Back

29   National Audit Office, Communicating with Customers, Session 2008-09, HC 421, 7 May 2009, p 31 Back

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