constance

 

At the top of this page you’ll see the tag

Trying to make sense of government…

In order to make sense of government, or anything, you have to be able to understand it. That starts with clear language and thought, not for reasons of pedantry but because without them you will not be understood.

Regular readers will know, and newcomers may have spotted, that this blog has a whole page on one aspect of clear communication, the Jargon Bin. But there’s a lot more to communicating clearly and occasionally I’ve had a go at wider aspects of what some call gobbledygook. My blast at the UK Civil Service Competency Framework was such an example and found particular favour: indeed it’s the most read post of all time on this blog. Tucked away at the end of it you’ll find a reference to the late, great Sir Ernest Gowers who said almost everything a public servant needs to know about what he called plain words.

Occasionally I spot other documents that exemplify some of the key (oops) aspects of gobbledygook. Yesterday the Scottish government issued a press release that does just that. It’s worth quoting in full.

Education Secretary: Tackling educational inequity in everyone’s interests.

Nothing is off the table in developing evidence-based work to tackle educational inequality, Education Secretary Angela Constance has said.

However, qualified, well-trained teachers and improved information for parents will be key to those efforts.‪

Ms Constance made her call during a speech at the University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, during which she also said:

  • Scotland’s education system must be fair and provide excellence to every child irrespective of their background or circumstances
  • Every school and every local authority must own its attainment gap and take action
  • All teachers must play their part in raising attainment, including understanding more about how poverty affects children’s lives
  • Parental involvement and interaction in their child’s education is key and any barriers that prevent that must be overcome
  • A National Improvement Framework, following best practice from high-performing systems around the world, will be established to gather data that shows not just what is working in Scotland, but why, for whom and in what circumstances.

Ms Constance said:

“If we are to want for every child what we want for our own children, we need an education system that is fair and which provides excellence to every child irrespective of their background or circumstances.

“So let me be clear, in pursuing a shared ambition to ensure that education delivers every child the best opportunities to excel, nothing is off the table. Let me equally be clear that the teachers at that table will be fully-qualified and well-trained – and they must be joined by parents who feel fully-engaged and well-informed about how they and their children are being supported to realise their aspirations.

“In the six months since I was appointed Education Secretary, I have seen so many excellent examples of work in our schools, at a time when we have record exam results and a drop in those leaving school with no or few qualifications, record numbers of school leavers securing positive destinations and record proportions of Scots from the most deprived areas entering higher education. But we know that we can and must do more.

“It will never be acceptable for poverty to be an excuse for failure. Parents, teachers, academics, local and central government – all owe it to the children of Scotland – to rise to the challenge of inequalities that persists within our education system.

“We can and must no longer settle for good enough. We must aim high.”

Professor Christopher Chapman, Chair in Educational Policy and Practice and Director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, said:

“I very much welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s focus on raising the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is a priority for this centre. We shall endeavour to use our expertise in theory-driven, applied research to support reform efforts and promote a rethinking of roles and responsibilities that generates improvement in classrooms, schools and across the wider system.”

I don’t intend to embark in a full textual analysis of what is wrong with this press release. Indeed, after several readings I’m still not sure precisely what it’s about, although perhaps her use of the dread word ‘framework’ is a distant clue. To add another metaphor to Ms Constance’s ‘table’ from which nothing is excluded, most aspects of education apart from the kitchen sink seem to get a mention. Those who want to will find irony in the fact that a minister responsible for education has allowed her civil servants to write such tosh for her, and to wrap it around the otherwise impeccable sentiment ‘…let me be clear.’

Masochists who dip into my No thanks! blog will know I have views on Scottish independence/separation. Angela Constance is an SNP politician. Sadly she and her civil servants prove that in this respect at least they are no better than many of the unreformed perpetrators of gobbledygook who lurk in government throughout the English-speaking world.

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This is a reprint of my article of the same name that the Guardian Public Leaders Network were kind enough to publish earlier this week. It had a good response – on the Network itself, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Many of people’s suggestions will be added to the complete Jargon Bin over the next week or so. Even more suggestions will be appreciated.  Enjoy.

I do it. You do it. All public servants do it.

I’ll rephrase that. Our ongoing public service career path progression necessitates the utilisation of sector-specific linguistic shorthand.

Jargon. Don’t you love it?

I love it so much I collect it. It’s not hard. It pours out of the public sector every day – from politicians, leaders, managers, professionals, even communications staff. In publications, committee reports, press releases, statements written and spoken, on the telly and on the radio, and all over the web.

Here’s just a small part of the dictionary of jargon I maintain. First the jargon and then what it actually means.

ability spectrum
as in “the lower end of the ability spectrum”, or less able people

bronze commander
how the police describe someone in charge on the ground

carriageway defects
known to most of us as road faults

drawdown
as in “commence drawdown” – how the military describe leaving Afghanistan

early years practitioners
workers who look after young children

flatlining
not growing, sometimes found with its friend the ‘double dip’

going forward
what simple folk call “in future”

hypothecation
pledging money by law to a specific purpose (I can’t resist John Prescott’s “speed cameras paid for themselves because we brought hypothecation and you might understand that …”)

integer
also known as a number

JSA
job seekers’ allowance. Acceptable in a technical discussion but not in a radio interview

key
just means important

lacking
as in my dictionary is lacking an example starting with L. Surely erudite Guardian public leaders will flood me with examples …

mentee
a horrible word for someone who is mentored

notspot
the opposite of a hotspot – what most people call “no signal”

optimal
best. If it’s best, just say so

pre-trial confinement capability
how the Pentagon describes a remand prison

quintile
what smarty-pants statisticians call a fifth

redaction
removing or withholding sensitive or confidential material, or “censorship dressed up with a pretty ribbon”, as someone said

stakeholder engagement
also known as consultation

top slicing
removing part of something, usually a budget

upstream interventions
nothing to do with rivers, it simply means early actions

voids
as in “retail voids”, or empty shops.

womancession
a recession particularly affecting women

For X and Y, see L above

zero-sum
a situation in which the gain of one approach is exactly balanced by the loss of another. It is often used opaquely, as in “the relationship between platform and agile is not zero sum”

We all use jargon without thinking. It’s fine as a technical shortcut with colleagues. But please don’t use it when you communicate with other people. It often uses more words than needed, obscures meaning, leads to ambiguity and misunderstanding, patronises and annoys people, helps makes public service ineffective and doesn’t do your reputation any good.

OK? Has my evidential base been sufficient to engage with you as public sector stakeholders mindful of sector-wide reputational issues?


UK prime minister David Cameron’s reshuffle of his Conservative ministers this week was preceded, as these things are, by a swirl of rumour. One odd, in the circumstances, claim was that the head of the civil service – Sir Robert Kerslake – was to be ‘sacked.’ Odd because he’s a civil servant not a politician so why would his position be part of a cabinet reshuffle? As with some of the other claims and counter-claims this turned out to be not strictly true but it reminded me that I’ve blogged before about initiatives he has been associated with

There’s an interesting, indeed excellent analysis of what’s actually happening to Sir Robert and the post he occupies on the Public Finance web site – Wanted: a real civil service CEO. I won’t attempt to repeat or plagiarise it but just want to highlight a few points.

First, I hadn’t realised that when he became head of the civil service Sir Robert retained his previous post of permanent secretary in the department of communities and local government. This information, new to me, adds another criticism to my earlier comments.  How was someone expected to lead the transformation of the entire civil service while keeping up his previous, already onerous, job? It’s a nonsense and spells out a real lack of commitment and understanding by the politicians of the bigger task.

Second, if this weren’t enough, the new arrangements post-Kerslake introduce further ambiguity and lack of role clarity if Public Finance is to be believed. The current Cabinet Secretary maintains his role and … you’ve guessed it, also becomes head of the civil service. Same problem as above. To make it worse a new civil service chief executive post is also to be created. Public Finance mounts a rational criticism of this arrangement, to which I would add more intemperately ‘For heaven’s sake , don’t these people ever learn?’

Third, don’t the two changes since 2012, when Kerslake was appointed to the ‘head’ job, just exemplify that old curse of bureaucracies? If in doubt, reorganise. Again, I’m tempted to conclude, don’t they ever learn?

Lastly, as the French don’t say, cherchez le politicien. As Public Finance explains

with an activist Civil Service Minister in Francis Maude, the space became too crowded for Sir Bob as the tensions over the pace and scale of reform increased.

So there you have it. All the elements that bedevil the public sector – wrong-headed reform badly expressed, ambiguity and conflict, a probably unrealistic demand by politicians for rapid transformation, reform undone and done again, the lessons of the past not learnt.

I almost feel sorry for Sir Bob. As I say, don’t they ever learn?


The HelpGov blog has been a bit quiet recently as I’ve got distracted by other things. But as I write, it has just been viewed 40,000 times. So now seems as good a time as any to share my most-read posts with an eager world. Some may surprise you: some certainly surprised me.

None of my recent rants about arguably the most important current issue facing the UK – the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum – appear in my top ten. Sadly for an indifferent readership, I cannot promise I won’t write again about that subject again. I’m currently mulling over an effort on the positive case for Scotland staying in the UK. It may appear soon. In the meantime, enjoy the HelpGov top ten countdown …

No. 1 The new Civil Service Competency Framework. I smell…

What I smelt last year was either pretentious nonsense or (excuse me) shite, depending on how delicate my sensibilities were at the time. Lots of people – presumably many of them civil servants – seemed to agree and still do, judging by the number of continuing page views.

No. 2 Ten things PowerPoint presenters shouldn’t say – but do

… or at least did in 2010, from the pathetic ‘Where do I put the memory stick in?’ to ‘It’s all in the hand-out anyhow.’  Has anything changed?

No. 3 [An old] top 10 countdown: and the all-time No. 1 is…

A bit of a cheat this one since it was reporting a much earlier summary of HelpGov’s most popular page views. The No.1 at the time was an article about, wait for it, wheelie bins, a phrase huge numbers of web users used to search for at the time. If you’re a serious wheelie bin aficionado don’t click through to check this one out. You will be disappointed.

No. 4 101 uses …

No, not of a dead cat (very old book) but of Post-it notes. I ran out of puff at No. 12. Perhaps I should re-visit this classic office tool. All ideas for Nos. 13-101 will be gratefully received.

No. 5 Government web sites can be bad for your health

Well, they could be at the time and some still are. This was a rant at the dire DirectGov site, which after the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition came into power was replaced by the excellent www.gov.uk portal – simple, friendly and efficient. Which only goes to show that Messrs Cameron and Clegg hang on every word HelpGov utters. So there.

No. 6 The jargon bin

My continuing attempt to document how mainly public sector organisations and people feel they have to speak and write in order to sound, well, long-winded and pompous, from the euphemism of the ‘ability spectrum’ to the economists’ horror of ‘zero sum’ and all alphabetical points in between. So if as a cohort you’re into optimal end-games and want to stay ahead of the curve, do visit this curated collection. And let me know of any other nonsense you come across.

No. 7 The Singapore legal system and the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang

Not quite HelpGov’s standard fare but I’ve had a long time interest in the wonderfully-successful but not quite democratic Republic of Singapore, where I lived for three years in my youth. This is a report of an alleged sex abuse case that wasn’t quite what it seemed at the time – or quite what the government of the country wanted its people to believe. I guess lots of the readers of this were from Singapore. They certainly won’t have read some of the detail in their own (government-owned) press.

No. 8 Civil Service reform

I wrote this about nine months before my blast at the UK civil service competency framework – see No. 1 above. I was sceptical – still am – about the then-proposed performance management and appraisal system for civil servants. The competency framework, and the popularity of what I said about it, makes me think I was justified in my scepticism. Any civil servants (or ex-civil servants if you were in the ‘bottom 10%’) out there who think I was right?

No. 9 UK government uses social media to help quell riots: Directgov strikes again

You can see I didn’t like the old Directgov web site (see also No. 5 above). As the government’s then main web site its response to the riots in various English cities in August 2011 was … pathetic. I also highlighted the government’s inept use of Twitter on the same subject. Let’s hope things are better next time there’s an emergency that social media could help inform.

No. 10 New York Public Library Rules OK…

I suspect that like ‘wheelie bins’ (see No. 3 above) this is a post that got lots of views because of its title rather than its content. If you really needed practical information about the wonderful New York public library this, sadly, was not the place to come. It didn’t do much more than record a campaign to stop big budget cuts to the library and, at the margins, try to give the campaign a little extra publicity. I never did check what happened but I’m sure big cuts were made as they seem to have been made to libraries throughout the UK too. So easy to cut library budgets, isn’t it? After all, librarians by and large aren’t militant protesters. And sadly the temper of the times seems to be against spending public money that doesn’t immediately produce measurable outcomes … now there’s one for the jargon bin.

Note: given the passage of time not all the links in each of the ten posts will work. Never mind, you’ll still get the drift of what I was on about.

 


The Scottish independence referendum is bringing to prominence a whole new area of special use of language. Here are some words I’m getting fed up with.

Afraid – see ‘Feart’

Bias – allegation made, usually without any firm evidence, about the news coverage of the BBC in the belief that ‘No’ campaigners are given an easy ride and ‘Yes’ campaigners are unfairly given a hard time. The allegation often means no more than the views of a favoured politician are subjected to legitimate challenge. The same accusation is also made about Scottish TV and (sometimes with more justification) about the printed media, Scottish and English.

Bullying – any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence by UK politicians, even if backed up by evidence and even if the politicians concerned are Scottish.

Feart – Scots for ‘afraid.’ Glib characterisation by many who want independence about those who don’t, whatever their reasons.

Negative – any reason given against independence.

Project Fear – ‘Yes’ code for ‘No’ campaign, whatever arguments it advances.

Scaremongering – another code word for any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence even if backed up by evidence, although not confined to statements by UK politicians.

Unionist – literally, a definition of anyone who wants to maintain the union (any sort of union) of the UK. Often used to imply a right wing or reactionary viewpoint because of its association with the ‘Conservative and Unionist’ party, much less so by any association with Ulster Unionism.

Westminster – as in ‘parties’ or ‘government.’  Shorthand for United Kingdom parties or government. Used to imply a whole range of characteristics – indifference, irrelevance, hostility, distance, separation and otherness – although ‘Westminster’ government is also UK and therefore Scottish government.  Sometimes shortened to ‘WM.’

Other contributions by sharp-eyed readers to the lexicon are welcome and will be added with due acknowledgement. Comments that do no  more than point out that I have a particular point of view are likely to remain unpublished, especially if abusive.


You know it ain’t gonna work when people can’t express themselves clearly.

I’ve had a go more than once about the inability of senior people in the civil service to express themselves in plain English (for example, in the civil service competency framework).

Now another example comes from the very heart of how the government communicates – the government communication network.

They’re changing how they work. To a layman like me it looks like reorganisation and centralisation, no doubt to good purpose.

But the announcement of the change, in the name of civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake, continues the tradition in government of management gobbledygook, ironically this time since this is about and for people whose job is to communicate.

In a short statement of no more than 370 words, Sir Bob or whoever writes on his behalf perpetrates a number of verbal infelicities

  • new core competencies for government communicators
  • talent management
  • better integration of digital into everything we do
  • a beacon of best practice and innovation, focused on raising the quality of everything we do
  • a new governance structure, and our old friend
  • clear career paths.

So everything’s going to be better now.

This thankfully short missive ends with the message from the main man that

I am determined that we get this right and will be following developments closely.

No ‘Good luck,’ no ‘I know you’ll all do well.’ Just ‘I’ll be watching closely.’ That couldn’t possibly be read as a threat, could it?

Doubtless the annual performance review of Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communication will be covering the issue.


I noticed today that Police Scotland are looking for the idiot who scrawled this graffito (HelpGov is nothing if not grammatically correct) on the façade of Aberdeen City Council’s headquarters, the wonderful and newly-restored Marischal College.

The ‘Ye’ bit suggests the perpetrator aspires to at least some learning and that the admonition may be a quotation from somewhere historical. But a Google search, while throwing up various biblical possibilities, didn’t recognise the actual words.

Given that this is Scotland and there’s an independence referendum next year (you hadn’t heard?) I toyed with the scribbler having a national or nationalistic purpose. Notice I don’t say which nation, so no rude comments please. They’ll only be blocked.

There are also numerous local possibilities about his concerns ranging from a new ring road to the state of our main shopping street to a disputed roundabout to new bus lane cameras to…

Perhaps The Idiot might like to submit the answer. I’ll be happy to publish it complete with his name.

To my surprise, my tweet on the subject was almost instantly re-tweeted by an English council chief executive (thanks @Relhyde) and that presumed fellow-feeling got me thinking about what it is that councils have not yet done as they ought.

Here’s my top list of things councils have not yet done as they ought.

  • Ye have not yet kept all the people happy all the time
  • Ye have not yet proven that democracy is not merely a good system of government but, yea, it is perfect
  • Ye have not yet squared every problem that doth present itself as a circle
  • Ye have not yet overcome an ever decreasing treasury in order to meet all demands upon your services
  • Ye have not yet insinuated yourself into the mind of every citizen that doth own a dog in order that canine defecation in your public places is entirely unknown
  • Ye have not yet conducted all your affairs in a state of complete harmony, unlike every other public institution in this United Kingdom of ours
  • Ye have not yet understood that ye are simultaneously too large and too small, too rich and too poor, and too arrogant and too supine
  • Ye have not yet reversed climate change, increased the longevity of your citizens’ lives, eliminated social exclusion nor solved any of the other small issues that are entirely reasonably laid at your door

Footnote: I have just read that another scrawl appeared in the same hand overnight on the nearby Council Town House – Weilders [sic] of Power Beware. Well that blows my theory about the perpetrator ‘s education.