Using plain English in local government communications

SimonCommunications, General

Last week the Local Government Association treated us to its list of banned words – jargon used by local authorities that means very little to residents and businesses. The full list is here.

Neville Hobson has picked up this on his blog, sparking an interesting debate in the comments to his post about whether plain English is actually a dumbing down of language. The alternative view is that written and verbal communication is meaningless (and pointless) if both parties don’t share a common understanding of what’s being communicated.

As a communicator working in local government this really interests me. As part of our written styleguide we have a list of banned words, along the same lines as the LGA’s. The principles behind it are important – being able to communicate with our audiences relies on us using words and phrases they understand.

The same applies in both public and private sectors; this article picking up on an Accenture internal memo certainly proves that point. And for communicators the challenge is the same: remembering that external audiences don’t speak your internal language.

It’s fine for planners within a local authority to talk about curtilages to each other – indeed the use of specialist technical language is important as it often carries complicated meanings within concise phrases. But when planners need to talk to members of the public, they need to speak the public’s language, which means changing language to suit the audience. I’m not picking on the planners in particular here – it’s a trait that exists in most specialist disciplines within organisations (including marketing and public relations, I have to admit).

The challenge for those who work in communications in local government is that most communications don’t come through the professional communicators. The bulk of council-resident interactions happen between officers and members of the public, through letters, emails, phone calls and face to face conversations.

As a communicator an important role is educating and equipping others to communicate more effectively. It’s a relatively straightforward task to ensure materials coming from the professional communicators are up to scratch, but getting standards to the same level across the organisation needs a different set of skills and the ability to network effectively – to get non-communicators to communicate more effectively and act as a champion of plain English.

My preferred alternative to plain English is appropriate English – the language that’s right for one audience isn’t right for another. For example if we were producing a leaflet about building regulations for architects, the language may well be different to a leaflet on the same subject for residents – it’s about choosing appropriate words and phrases for your intended audience.

A brief footnote – interesting to see the LGA list has the banned word “coterminous” with the suggested alternative as “all singing from the same hymn sheet” – swapping one bit of business jargon for another equally bad one surely!