It is a tedious subject for many, I’m sure, and maybe I need to learn to relax, but I got a spam email referring to the LGA’s banned words list at the weekend.

The spam was from Ticketmedia, an advertising company that sells advertising space on public transport tickets (and presumably thinks I am going to get Wandsworth to start buying some because of an unsolicited email). Using a weak connection between the LGA’s jargon that councils don’t use and the simplicity of bus ticket advertising to send me unsolicited email in which “Ticketmedia applauds LGA move to banish bewildering jargon… the clampdown by the LGA on council staff using nonsensical jargon is a welcome initiative” and totally unconnected with the bus ticket advertising they then go on to sell.

When the wrong message is now being transmitted onwards by spamming PR firms I think it’s proof the LGA have got it all wrong.

I’m surprised by the reaction to my post on the Local Government Association (LGA) banned words story yesterday. Generally, people have tended to agree with me – the point of lobbying is not to do something that results in people having a lower opinion of your client, especially when that opinion is because you’re implying they do things they’ve never done.

What is interesting is the range of people who have contacted me. Obviously those in local government have an interest, and it’s perhaps not surprising they would support my view. But I was amazed to get an email from a local resident. I would have thought this is a fairly limited local government issue, but they wondered exactly what the LGA did to have so much time on their hands to be able to release this. And I was also suprised when a couple of people in the LGA told me, privately, they thought it was entirely the wrong story to push.

But not everyone agrees. Almost as soon as I’d posted there was a comment from Roger Storer who – quite rightly – pointed out that I do some work for the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA).

And he’s right, I should’ve put that in. The IDeA is part of the LGA family, if somewhat arms length, and for want of a better description acts as a consultancy -I’m paid because the IDeA are paid by their clients who are (I hope) satisfied with the job we’ve done. It isn’t funded through subscriptions, or to act as a lobbyist for councils.

It’s for others to judge if I’m being hypocritical, but I don’t believe occasionally working for the IDeA means I should support, without question, every action of the LGA.

[I happen to think, with some evidence, Roger is what is known as a sockpuppet, someone pretending to be someone else to advance their argument. But despite that I have let his comment stand for the sake of transparency.]

Very shortly afterwards Richard Stokoe, the LGA press officer responsible for the banned words list, called me to discuss the story. And in the interests of fairness I’ll give his take.

The LGA think the press release was carefully worded to avoid any mention of councils (except two positive examples) and instead referred to public services generally. And the argument they were able to articulate in interviews, such as on the Today programme, was that it was really a problem with central government who created these words and phrases which then trickled out to the wider public sector.

He also pointed out that local government tends to have a bad track record in communication, with (nationally, the Wandsworth figure is much better) only about half of all people feeling well unformed by their local council.

I would argue that they should have worded their press release more carefully, it’s a fairly obvious conclusion to assume a Local Government Association press release is about local government. And that people feeling badly informed is about how and when councils communicate – it clearly isn’t the words they use because they’d be showing up in Google.

He also said that they will be reviewing the coverage and reaction, as they always do, before deciding how to deal with the issue in future.

Personally, I can only hope they take the decision to drop it totally.

It’s amazing to think that one of the highest rated councils in the country with the lowest council tax, wastes money on jargon. But it does.

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 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.

I think Wandsworth is pretty good at avoiding ‘jargon’ in its communications, so don’t expect to be too embarrassed by The Local Government Association‘s (LGA) attack on jargon in councils.  Indeed, generally I support the LGA in its stance.  If councils can’t communicate with their residents, then you have to wonder who can.  But I cannot help but feel they have got it slightly wrong.

Let’s nail the idea that jargon is necessarily bad straight away.  It isn’t.  Jargon is essential in virtually every business or trade. People use the word ‘jargon’ in a derogoratory way to simply refer to phrases they do not understand.  But to people dealing with the particular concepts, ideas or tools jargon is essential, it’s a verbal short-hand.  You will probably have some in your line of work that I would not understand.  And for some reason we seem to accuse some jobs and professions more than others.  We rarely hear doctors accused of using jargon, do we?  But council staff?  All the time, and I worry that actually reflects an inherent bias in our culture that values council staff less than doctors.

Jargon becomes inappropriate when it is used outside that trade.  A lot of the words they use I would never consider using even when talking to other councillors or council officers.  But some of them I do, because they have become that convenient short-hand that allows us to communicate efficiently, it takes a lot longer to describe a local area agreement without jargon than it does to refer to the LAA.  But I wouldn’t expect the average person to know what an LAA is, or even, for that matter understand or care if it was explained to them.  Most people want to know public services work, not how they work.

Where I have to depart company from the LGA when they start condemning perfectly good English words.

There is something disturbingly Orwellian about trying to chop words out of the language.  I have two concerns about this.  First, is that language is incredibly powerful, we use it every day but rarely acknowledge how much it shapes our world.  One of the most striking successes of the 1997-2007 Labour governments was that they were incredibly good at adapting the political vocabulary, this effectively meant the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were reduced to arguing on Labour’s ground – they had defined the political territory and created the words and concepts to describe it.  The opposition parties became tourists in a foreign land, reduced to speaking loudly and slowly in the hope of getting their message across.

Second, is that at best we are patronising people by using ‘simple’ language, and at worst conniving in the dumbing down of a population.  The LGA has done a fantastic job of promoting their view, and they have picked up on some fine examples of where councils have reduced communication to meaningless jumbles of words and letters.  But in doing so they’ve targeted some perfectly fine words; which will presumably become tragic victims of friendly fire in a noble cause.  The most tragic, I think, is coterminous.

Coterminous is perfectly fine word.  It has a defined meaning.  It is used outside of local councils and is a word I knew long before I set foot in a council meeting (I’m guessing from maths at school).  The LGA are suggesting that ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ is a suitable alternative, but unfortunately that’s not quite the same thing, in fact, nothing like the same thing.  I even Tweeted my support of coterminous to the LGA yesterday (see here and here) but sadly it was not enough and they proceeded with their unprovoked attack on the defenceless word.

But like any good cause I am not alone, a chap called Ben Proctor has written a blog post in defence of this fine word.  Hemming, publishers of The MJ, have also noted that not everyone is joining the LGA’s angry mob and picked up on some of the dissent.  It will not be an easy fight but it will be a worthy one; coterminous is firmly in my top three words (along with ineffable and defenestrate) and I, for one, pledge to use it as often as possible.  When it’s appropriate.