A word to the wise

When it comes to using the English language, argues Graham
Hopkins, it seems that many social services managers have taken
leave of their senses.

Poor old Thomas More. A martyr to his cause in life he now
arguably suffers more as the patron saint of civil servants.

He can’t be short of a few prayers for help in his heavenly
in-tray. Not with the National Care Standards Commission (NCSC)
strutting its linguistic stuff. Their draft transition plan for
taking over responsibility for social care regulation in England
“informs” us of the “rolling out of office procurement in four
tranches”. This is macho management-speak for “our programme of
acquiring offices has four stages”.

Never mind that the derivation of procure is “to bring about by
care or pains” – it’s big and sounds impressive. And that’s what

However, unlike Thomas More, who was a scholar and knew the
power and meaning of words, modern day bureaucrats use (or rather
“utilise”) them for effect over substance. Unfortunately, this
leads to the NCSC declaring its position on “information
decimation” when they mean, presumably, “dissemination”. The simple
moral is that if you’re going to use a big word you better be able
to spell it. The simplest moral of all, of course, is don’t use big
words, full stop. But where would that get us? At least the NCSC
didn’t call their “plan” a “strategy”. Mercy!

So, how was this pompously worded plan received? The chairperson
of the National Association of Inspection & Registration
Officers (Nairo) has declared himself “very impressed” with the
document. Sadly, this is not surprising. People at the top enjoy
talking the same (that is, their) language. Exclusivity is

The most recent issue of Nairo’s newsletter reports on the use
of “a bi-polar concept that allows us to categorise our perceptions
of similarities and differences in our environmentÉ (which)
Éare not discrete entities but, rather, are organised into
complex hierarchical networksÉ” And this was from a workshop
on how to involve service users in inspection. Service users
themselves, incidentally, were not invited to the workshop for fear
they may have found it “daunting and unhelpful”. I know how they
may have felt on this one.

“Even between experts,” wrote Godfrey Howard in The Good
English Guide
, “jargon is used to cover up half-baked thoughts
or to make the commonplace sound important and significant.” As
public services professionalise themselves, adopt “rigorous” and
“robust” ways to impress us all with the importance of their work,
we are, to steal a phrase from Peter de Vries, showered in a deluge
of words but a drizzle of thought.

It’s time we fought back. It’s time to shame those who feed the
public, including their staff, incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo and
this week’s statutory buzz word.

How many of us have shaken our heads upon reading rubbish like
this: “It should be recognised that accessing partnerships would
provide a useful and timely opportunity to map out and strengthen
outcome-driven joint visions.”

A health trust looking at ways to find out what patients think
of its services began by declaring: “This framework for
establishing patient/client interface needs to be constructive
enabling us to hear views that might not otherwise be heard so
influencing the strategic direction and day to day experience of

A housing department’s glossy report sent out to tenants
informed them that “our policy is to encourage the availability and
desirability of privately rented property to secure a buoyant
market, and assist labour market flexibility”.

Then we have all those pompous words and phrases that replace
something simple. An environmental health officer referred to the
upstairs toilet (or lavatory) as the first-floor sanitary
accommodation. In this world taps become water outlets, fridges
become refrigerated appliances, and a Wendy house becomes a
domestic environment experience. Similarly, we wouldn’t dream of
saying “clients can see their own files”, when we can say: “Clients
have appropriate access to documentation maintained pertaining to

At a conference I attended on providing better communication, a
speaker, while recognising “the complexity and diversity of
transactions”, argued passionately for “a proactive strategy for
active dissemination”. My hopes were decimated.

A social services department looking to inform the public about
what it does explained helpfully about the need to “strengthen
client side systems for managing the market”, while “implementing a
competency framework”, and ensuring that “policy and commissioning
groups routinely progress-chase key planning targets”.

A leaflet contained this explanatory note: “The current
programme overleaf, offers a choice of work and skills training in
the small group work principle. Our aim is to help you enhance your
social skills sufficiently in order to enable you to take an active
part in your personal development.” Perhaps this example is not
over-burdened by gobbledygook, you might think. But it was given
out to clients at a day centre for people with learning

I will continue to bang my bruised head against a wall of social
services-speak and throw custard pies in the face of
management-speak until the day I die – or, in health-speak, “suffer
a negative patient outcome”.

Graham Hopkins is the author of Plain English for
Social Services
and The Write Stuff – A Guide to Effective
Writing in Social Care.

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