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 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.