Text size: A A A

Do we need an award for being jargon-free?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has signalled a new prize would be added to Whitehall’s annual Civil Service Awards for the achievement of staying jargon-free.

Writing on the Civil Service blog, Cameron said strong communication is central to providing the very best public service and his government, for its second term, wanted “humanity” in the communication between his administration and the public:

“By that I mean a sympathetic understanding of the problems confronting the people we’re all here to serve. That understanding helps us to provide humane, professional services and to answer the public’s questions properly.  It also helps us to develop policies. Creating policy that works in practice requires us to step into the shoes of those whom the policy will affect.

“But honesty, integrity and humanity need to be accompanied by effective communication.  All our communications with the public should be human, clear, simple, helpful and professional. This means explaining complexity in everyday terms and translating jargon into simple English.  If we can’t do that, we won’t communicate.”

Ministers also needed clarity, he declared. Plagued by briefs often as complex as the issues they address, minister’s (often not the robots they’re sometimes assumed to be) aren’t coping with the language used by civil servants.

“Civil servants may know [these issues] inside out, but ministers can’t know everything in detail.  So we rely on you to cut through the complexity and cut out the jargon.  Please be brief and use straightforward language.  Ministers depend on your impartial, objective advice. We don’t want that advice wrapped up.  If there’s bad news, we need to hear it.  If there’s a problem, tell us clearly.  But please try also to find a way round the problem and tell us that clearly too.

“So I’m asking every department and agency to concentrate on making all their communications brief, simple, human and jargon-free.  I want to see these qualities in everything government writes. I look to senior civil servants to set a personal example of this.”

A new award for clarity is being introduced to the UK Civil Service Awards to help recognise, reward and publicise as an example the of excellence in communication.

Aussie public service slang

Australia has done more for language than inventing the term ‘selfie’, but perhaps not so much in our public sector.

The Mandarin is looking for examples of best practice in the Australian public sector. Nearly every jurisdiction conducts training in plain English writing for public servants, but where has it actually made a difference to the culture?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff were encouraged to volunteer for “Acronym Free Day” — as part of a charity drive. Perhaps it was too ambitious to go cold turkey:

Of course it’s hard when many of the institutional controls encourage and reward use of insider terminology.

When this reporter began his first public service career, he was offered training in plain English writing and thought that was the cultural goal. But it wasn’t long before he was more at home amid thick Defence briefs where every fifth word was an all-capitalised abbreviation beginning with “D”.

If Australia introduced an award for clarity, what should be the benchmark? The Mandarin would love to know. Tell us in the comments below, or reach out to us.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.