Simple ways to obfuscate

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Plain English is easier said than done, and it isn't easily said, either.

Most of us can't get through a sentence without several redundant insertions of "actually", "you know", "well", "like" or my particular favourite: "basically". I'm very fond, however, of the new use of "like" to show what someone said: "He was like 'way to go, bro'." Simple English, but not necessarily plain.

Before any embittered English teacher rings in to point out that the last sentence isn't, you know, a sentence, actually, because there isn't like, well, a verb in it, I would like to say that, basically, at the end of the day, it is simpler and plainer without one.

I think the new chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council is going to have his work cut out (where does that come from?) implementing his plan to introduce plain English into his organisation's pronouncements. For a start, many of his staff are pseudo-, or possibly crypto- or proto-civil servants. As such they are schooled in the art of avoiding action. Never, ever, take a decision until you are forced into it, is the bureaucrats'

creed. Make sure everyone working on your project has the authority to say "no" but give no one, including yourself, the power to say "yes".

Plain English is thus anathema to civil servants of the old school. All future options must be kept open for later inaction. Plain English likes to bring things to a head and force a choice. Of course, non-decision-based administration needs to be presented in writing as dynamic policy-making, or people might question your entitlement to a salary.

Take this, picked genuinely at random from an LSC funding guidance document: "All institutions will receive the agreed allocation of funding for the relevant volume of learners. Where it is deemed necessary to provide additional funding to ensure adequate provision of learning in a locality, the LSC may offer additional support on specified conditions, set out within an agreed recovery plan."

On the surface, plain enough. Nothing, however, is defined. This sentence gives the LSC the power to do something, or nothing, as it sees fit, in an area as small or large as it determines, with as much or little money as it wants. You may even question whether "support" means "money" or not. So if, in the view of the LSC, your college can't provide properly, the LSC may, or may not, choose to assist and can define what sort of assistance is appropriate.

So the English is simple, but is it plain? Obviously not. Plain English would say: "We'll decide what people need and whether you have a hope of providing it. If we think you have, you'll do as you're told if you know what's good for you and you want the dough."

Is that plain enough for you? Are you ever going to see it in an LSC document?

Well, under appropriately defined and agreed circumstances the LSC may choose to specify its policy objectives and intentions in more relevant terms, in accordance with locally prevailing conditions. However, weasel words such as "relevant" or "appropriate" are not for the master-class bureaucrat. To be really at the top of your profession, you need to understand the use of a word which is very plain, very innocent, but more weasel than a greasy ferret. Take this sentence: "Provision deemed ineligible for funding will include courses not listed in appropriate schedules and those in curriculum areas judged unsatisfactory by inspectors". This is an invented sentence, but a perfectly plausible LSC candidate. You would think, wouldn't you, from a cursory reading, that courses are eligible if listed and judged satisfactory. Wrong: the inclusion of "included" means that anything can be deemed ineligible, if it turns out to be necessary.

So, "plain English" may not be so plain, after all. But I suspect subtlety of that nature isn't what the chief executive wants to do away with. He is after the jargon that sees students dubbed "learners", colleges called "providers", teaching called "delivery", or "activity-based learning strategies" for group work and the proliferation of the dreaded TLA: three letter acronym, like LSC.

And maybe that's where he should start. Windscale had locals dropping like flies, but Sellafield attracts school parties. The Royal Mail got it wrong because Consignia is stupid and the Royal Mail classy. It changed back and went straight into profit. The LSC sounds dreadfully boring and is easily confused: LSE? Ellesse? So, boring, confusing, too easily reduced to a meaningless acronym, what should the new plain English name for the LSC be? At this point I should announce a competition with a prize of a meal for two in the staff restaurant at the splendid LSC head office in Coventry.

But, of course, you would all win because the choice is obvious. There really is only one possible name for the new LSC: it needs to suggest an organisation which is lean, has nine regions, an HQ in Coventry and difficulty with the concept and practice of planning. How about FEFC?

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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