One of the many joys that engages the busy local government manager is the opportunity to spend many hours away from my desk sat in meetings. An occupational hazard, perhaps, but meetings need not be dull.
Lonely? Don’t like working on your own? Hate making decisions? Then call a meeting. You can see people. Draw flowcharts. Form sub-committees. And all on company time. Meetings: the practical alternative to work.
My wife, who is not a manager, but once was, has frequently remarked that much of my precious time is whiled away sat in meetings. In justification many meetings are genuinely valuable but some, it has to be admitted, are not.
The prioritisation of one’s time is an apparent preoccupation with managers wrestling with the prospect of having to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. I regularly spend time with colleagues from other organisations for whom doubles and triples are not the size of their drinks but the numbers of meetings booked.
Spending a lot of time in France, as I do each year, thanks to our maison secondaire in the land of the 35-hour week, I cannot help feeling that they have got it just about right and well, we, maybe, have not.
Given that I, like many a manager, spend a significant proportion of my time at meetings, I have had occasion to reflect upon the language we tend to adopt when in such settings.
The following examples, I promise you, were experienced by me during meetings I have recently attended:
The icebox: This is the vessel used to store ideas to keep them fresh. More commonly known by the Luddites among us, me included, as a flip chart. I initially thought we were going to get “cold ones” rather then coffee at break time.
Jam tomorrow: Not literally but a promise that no matter how difficult things are today they could get better and sweeter tomorrow. However, experience suggests that they rarely do.
Parking the issue: A statement frequently made in an effort to silence the person who repeatedly raises issues that no-one has the answer to. Often I believe the presenter would rather park the offending person on the nearest dual carriageway.
Across the piece: No idea, if I’m honest. It was frequently used after a minister employed this expression on a Radio 4 interview. Popular a few months ago but now dying out.
My organisation tries very hard to ensure that the information we provide is written in a language that will be clearly understood. We frequently employ the skills of users, carers and the independent sector as a means to ensure our communication is free of jargon.
But despite living our daily working lives under the ever watchful eye of the Plain English Police, jargon remains the staple of many organisations’ meetings. Why? I cannot answer that. But listen carefully and you too will know it to be true.
Giles Gardner is operations manager, adult and community services, Devon Council