Like hundreds of other councils Wandsworth pays an annual subscription to the Local Government Association (LGA). The LGA, according to their website “is a voluntary lobbying organisation, acting as the voice of the local government sector, and an authoritative and effective advocate on its behalf” and “promotes the interests of English and Welsh local authorities”. In fact, with 424 members, most of the country’s local government is a member.
Today they released their annual list of banned words that councils shouldn’t use. It’s an annual event – last year I found myself sticking up for coterminosity – but one they seemingly never learn from since once again the media, from the BBC to the Daily Mail, have leapt on it for a bit of council bashing.
But are these words really used by councils or councillors?
Last year the late, and missed, Jack Pickard did a bit of research to show that, actually, councils weren’t guilty of over-using jargon and, in fact, the LGA were often the guilty people.
Just looking at their list and using Google.co.uk as an indicator:
- Trialogue Not a single council returned in the first five pages of results.
- Wellderly Not a single council returned in the first five pages of results. (Although Harriet Harman features heavily.)
- Goldfish bowl facilitated conversation Two councils in the first five pages of results, but only because they were carried a feed, featuring the phrase, from the BBC website.
- Tonality Not a single council returned in the first five pages of results.
- Webinar Not a single council returned in the first five pages of results.
- Under-capacitated Not a single council returned in the first five pages of results.
- Clienting Not a single council returned in the first five pages of results.
- Disbenefits One council, Surrey, appears in the first five pages of results.
I’m not suggesting that none of these words and phrases have ever been used by any council. But if these new words were being bandied around by Town Halls they’d manifest in Google through one of their websites, press releases or leaflets, but only one council turned up in the 400 results.
It’s hard to decide where to begin with this. For a start, there seems to be be some sort of inverse snobbery with some of these (like coterminosity, I think disbenefit is a perfectly good word). Plain language is all well and good, but when it over-reaches and starts to strip out perfectly valid English I can’t help but be reminded of Orwell’s Newspeak. And that’s doubleplusungood.
And while I can’t remember hearing any of these phrases in councils, it is perfectly valid for jargon to be used internally, it’s how professionals communicate with other professionals (would you expect a surgeon to talk in theatre in plain English?) and as these don’t appear to be creeping into the outside world that’s not a problem.
But because the Local Government Association have published the list, everyone assumes that it’s a local government issue. So despite the LGA’s qualifier that it’s a problem across the public sector the papers that have picked up the story have gone with the council angle. The Daily Mail says: “Welcome to the world of local government gobbledegook” and even CNN have got in on the act telling readers “councils ordered to quit jargon.”
And that’s what gets me most of all. An organisation that is meant to stand up for councils, and is paid by hundreds of them to do just that, once a year persists in giving a stick to the media with which to beat councils.