How can we make local and central government language more accessible?
Author: Cllr Merrick Cockell, Christina Dykes, James Morris, Cllr David Lee, Peter Botting |
How can the language used by central and local government be redefined to make it more accessible?
At the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, in a discussion about language and meaning, the March Hare emphatically tells Alice: “Then you should say what you mean.” Unfortunately, Alice’s repeated difficulties in making herself understood to the marvelous characters of Wonderland are no longer merely a fond memory of childhood; as our contributors explain, the language of government has become twisted and inaccessible, undermining our democracy – and, they argue, we must reclaim and redefine it.
Why does language matter? Language not only enables us to communicate with one another; it helps us to shape our very ideas and thoughts about the world and our place in it. Famously, America and Britain have been described as two nations separated by a common language, but the gulf between officialdom and the public is wider still.
Read almost any document produced by central or local government and that gulf becomes all too apparent: normal words appear strangely stretched and contorted out of shape, a dense jungle of acronyms and jargon obscures the meaning of documents and decisions are routinely rendered incomprehensible except to high-priced lawyers and Zen master.
For bureaucrats, such “official-speak” is almost obligatory. How can a report matter if anyone and everyone can read it? Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister would never allow such an unthinkable calamity befall his ministry or even the town hall ? though I doubt he would ever have considered the latter had anything to do with government.
For most people, such “official speak” is a barrier to understanding how their money is spent and getting the services they need and deserve. Even worse, with good cause they believe it is created with that purpose in mind. We politicians become immune, thinking it is an occupational hazard and end up using it as an easy, lazy way of talking to each other.
So, we must take back our language and, in doing so, make democracy more accessible and accountable. Instead of wearing our Crystal Mark with pride on major documents we should write and speak simply and clearly. Isn’t that what language is for?