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Policy Communication Going Backwards

26 July 2013

A new Whitehall style guide has been gaining attention this week for outlawing buzzwords. The thirteen page document published on the website includes a list of outlawed words and phrases including ‘deliver’, ‘incentivise’, ‘leverage’, ‘slimming down’ and ‘going forwards’.

This is not the first time in recent weeks that the government machine has attempted to ‘get better in the way [that it] presents things’. Michael Gove set the trend in motion when he ‘banned jargon’ in the Department for Education on 30 June and urged civil servants to read George Orwell as an example of best practice.

Such actions tell us something very interesting about the nature of contemporary politics. But the situation wasn’t much better in Orwell’s day.

In 1947, as Orwell continued to grapple with the seminal novel 1984, the British government published an experimental document called the Economic Survey. This was an attempt to explain the economic situation to the public and is referred to in the previous post. It was also the focus of an investigation carried out by the social research group Mass Observation (MO).

The short report created by MO was called The Language of Leadership and dealt with the Economic Survey as an example of a broader trend. It argued that ordinary people were effectively being excluded from participation by the use of technical language. This caused some upset within government and even led to questions being asked in parliament.

But the most interesting thing about The Language of Leadership is how it compares to today’s list of proscribed words.

Among the problematic word identified in 1947 were ‘objectives’, ‘conception’ and or ’embody’. These were particularly difficult in combination – with the phrase ‘the OBJECTVES of this Paper EMBODY the Government’s determination to put first things first’ apparently causing ‘semi-paralysis’ (pp.2-3).

When this is compared with today’s list, it is clear that twenty-first century politics has become much more business-like.  It might also suggest that the primary audience has changed – with Whitehall talking to itself rather than attempting to explain policies to the public. Perhaps that’s why Mr Gove’s golden rules included ‘Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?’ at number 5.

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