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Gobbledygook: Stormont politicians serving up a diet of waffle

The founder of the Plain English Campaign has lashed out at “gobbledygook” used in official documents by our top politicians.

The Belfast Telegraph sent Chrissie Maher, the Liverpool grandmother who founded the campaign in the 1970s, four current Stormont consultation papers to assess.

“The papers you showed me often use words like nine-foot walls to cut off communication. They could so easily make it easier for readers with proper editing,” she said.

“When people don’t want you to understand they often clothe the message in waffle, old-fashioned language and quasi legalistic words,” she added.

“These particular documents may have been written with the best intentions, but they don’t show proper consideration for their intended audience.”

She pointed out that the papers would cost less, get a better public response and achieve more it they were shortened and simplified.

The consultation documents which Ms Maher and her team examined were from Caral ni Chuilin’s Department of Culture Arts and Learning (DCAL), Stephen Farry’s Department of Employment and Learning, Nelson McCausland’s Department for Social Development (DSD) and Edwin Poots’ Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSP).

Ironically, the DCAL document on promoting the Irish language was written in the most comprehensible English, scoring three out of 10 overall.

The others scored either one or zero, and ministerial forewords fared little better than the main text, written by civil servants. Two were graded on the internationally recognised ‘Flesch Readability’ test where a score of 60-70 means a document is easily accessible to the average reader.

Dr Farry’s effort scored 52 and was described as “having a poor style and bad average sentence length”.

Nelson McCausland’s thoughts on urban regeneration fared even worse. They scored 26 on the Flesch scale, less than half of what is acceptable. They were studded with insider terms like “stakeholders” and “focus on results ahead of process’’. In the paper itself an explanatory diagram of the “enabling environment” was judged incomprehensible and “laid out on the page in every which way”.

Badly written and jargon-filled documents may contribute to the poor response rates to official consultations and to the widespread cynicism about Stormont and politics generally.

“Training could put it right in one moment. You wouldn’t believe the difference in the responses you could get if people are able to understand the information,” Ms Maher said.

She believes jargon costs money, slows down internal communications and ties up staff resources. The National Audit Office estimates that each page produced by a senior public service manager costs between £20 and £100, and each printed page on each desk costs £1.

Dealing with complaints and queries about difficult forms doesn’t come cheap.

In the 1980s Royal Mail postal redirection forms had an 87% error rate and cost £10,000 a week to reprocess. They were rewritten using plain English principles and the postal service estimated that introducing a more clearly worded form saved it £500,000 in the first nine months.

Ms Maher urged Stormont to follow the example of the Scottish Government which has adopted plain English principles since devolution.

Last year the Government of Scotland received an award from the Plain English Campaign for implementing its principles. All public bodies there were circulated with an ‘Inclusive Communications Guide’ and provided with training in communications.

Sir Peter Housden, Scotland’s most senior civil servant, said at the time “high quality writing is central to the effectiveness of our work across the Scottish Government and the award is testament to colleagues throughout the organisation who strive for continuous improvement’’.

How civil servants use 118 words when just 22 will do

An example of Stormontspeak... (from a DSD paper on urban regeneration)

  • Enabling Objective 2 – To maximise the resources available for urban regeneration and community development by supporting an innovative financial environment: Find new ways to raise money for developing and improving our towns and cities.

    4.3.1 The Department will aim to support an effective enabling environment for urban regeneration and community development by maximising the available resources. Key actions in the delivery of this objective will include:
  • Examining the feasibility and potential of suggested new instruments to maximise the financial opportunities for urban regeneration and community development; and
  • Negotiating with relevant government departments and agencies to better integrate the spatial effects of public spending in urban regeneration and community development through the use of financial oversight and accounting tools.

... And what it really means

How will we do this: We will look for and examine new ways to raise money for developing our towns and cities.

Unpicking the jargon: four official documents assessed for readability

1 DCAL’s paper on the future of the Irish language (Minister: Caral Ni Chuilin)


COMMENT: “This minister may have tried that much harder because she was passionate about getting her message across,” the PEC believed. The subject matter was also less complex than in some of the other papers.

2 The DSD’s consultation on Urban Regeneration (Minister: Nelson McCausland)


COMMENT: Filled with social worker jargon and seems written to impress rather than inform. The very important and necessary message is lost in gobbledygook. Our favourite phrase is “connected, cohesive and engaged communities’’ — not if he doesn’t use plain English!

For instance “outcomes-focused approach” is used when “getting results” would be clearer. The management term “logic model” is used throughout. It is defined as an “outcomes-focused model which describes logical linkages between programme resources, activities, outputs, audiences, and short, intermediate and long-term outcomes related to a specific problem or situation”.

The PEC found that this jaw- breaking sentence was taken from an academic paper for industry specialists, “but has been made even more complicated in the DSDNI document and table than it was in the original document”.

3 DEL’s Steps to Success |programme for helping unemployed people back in to the workforce (Minister: Stephen Farry)


COMMENT: “Woolly, full of industry jargon and business speak inappropriate for the intended audience, many of whom are unemployed. Even the contents page includes management speak terms, like ‘supply chain management’.’’ PEC points out that studies show unemployed people are twice as likely to have the lowest level of literacy. Particular care must be taken to communicate clearly with them, it said.

Extensive use of words like ‘however' and ‘therefore' give this document a pompous tone and industry terms like ‘top up allowance' are not explained. There are examples of poor grammar such as “do you agree with the proposal of three contract areas to match the Employment Services regional is used to delivery the Support Fund contract.’’

4 The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSP) consultative paper entitled Transforming Your Care (Minister: Edwin Poots)


COMMENT: This document seems to follow poorly-thought out report templates that are filled with content just for the sake of appearances. Things aren’t helped by a dreadful diagram showing the model of health and social care.

Abbreviations abound without full wording and explanation. It is padded out with clichés like “evidences based workforce modeling” which could be translated as “writing clear job descriptions?’’

It is full of political correctness which often results in distorting the original meaning. “Reablement” is a word created to gloss over the true meaning, which is rehabilitate.

How the Plain English Campaign began

The Plain English Campaign (PEC) started when Chrissie Maher realised many people in her native Liverpool were missing out on benefits because they couldnt understand the official forms. That was 1971.

A decade later Margaret Thatcher asked her to assist in the Rayner review of government communications. Some 36,000 documents were scrapped and 58,000 redesigned.

The initial savings were £15m, and eventually mounted to £250m. The Campaign will be giving classes for large organisations and trainers in Belfast this November. www.plainenglish.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph