If Shropshire Council wants to engage with communities, it must drop gobbledygook and use plain English

Since the Plain English Campaign was launched in 1979, 324 local councils have been awarded the Crystal Mark seal of approval for clearly written documents. Shropshire Council is not among them.[1]

Libraries are all about communication. We love them. But we are for fearful for their future. A review of the six hub libraries – Shrewsbury, Oswestry, Whitchurch, Market Drayton, Bridgnorth and Ludlow – is shortly to get underway.

We don’t know the details of the review yet. A few weeks back, Shropshire Council wrote to Ludlow Town Council about the forthcoming library review:

We anticipate seeking, within a soft market testing exercise, feedback and responses on the interest of potential partners in helping Shropshire Council to shape and further develop these into vibrant, relevant and sustainable community hub venues.

Did anyone reading that sentence understand it on first reading? Or did you, like me, need to read it twice?

The 36-word sentence is pretty much gobbledygook. It is classic bureaucratic obscuration. A sentence that is hard to read and difficult to understand can easily be misinterpreted.

It is regrettable that Shropshire Council has failed to learn the benefits of plain English. Here is what the sentence means.

A “soft market testing exercise” means talking to people. “Feedback and responses” means listening. “Vibrant, relevant and sustainable community hub venues” means a library and customer service centre that works. So why couldn’t Shropshire Council say that in the first place?

The council could have said:

We’ll be talking and listening to people, including town and parish councils, community groups and potential service providers. We’ll then take the results of that exercise to redesign library and customer service centres.

I have chosen just one example of the overlong sentence and over complex sentences I see every day in internal documents.[2] If language like this is used internally, it will inevitably spill out into external documents. It also means that council officers have to translate what they are saying into plain English when communicating with the public. That is a wasteful exercise when documents could have been penned in plain English in the first place.

I am not criticising the use of jargon in documents. At its best jargon is specialised language that is compact and precise. It is often better to use jargon than to spell out a phrase, name or concept in in full.

Take the example of SAMDev, an acronym and jargon word that is mentioned 428 times on this blog. SAMDev is used across our county when we talk about planning. It is an abbreviation of “Site Allocations and Management Development Document”. That’s a title too clumsy to use repeatedly, which is why we say SAMDev.

We should always explain on first use in public documents that SAMDev is our local plan for housing sites and other development. Thereafter it can be used as a very neat piece of jargon.[3]

I am making a simple plea to everyone involved in local government and beyond. English is a lovely language that is best understood when written and spoken plainly. Let’s stick to plain English.

Notes

[1]. Shropshire Council’s web team have argued for plain English but it seems not have had much impact.

[2]. This sentence was chosen because it is in a letter sent to Ludlow Town Council. The letter is in the town council papers for 20 January 2016.

[3]. I generally follow the Guardian style guide when writing. The guide says that acronyms that can be spoken as words should be written as Samdev, not SAMDev. I don’t think there is a case for spelling samdev without an initial capital.

2 thoughts on “If Shropshire Council wants to engage with communities, it must drop gobbledygook and use plain English

  1. a soft market testing exercise really means how much hassle would there be if we closed it. Also what is a “hub” – something at the centre of things, it is not dependent on or interested in the satellites – so as a term it is about drawing in and should not be used to describe a library – it is a word adopted by the Blairite era but is inappropriate, why can’t we have central libraries, central offices and sub libraries, as this is what the actual result is

  2. I didn’t actually know what it meant either, i spent several minutes trying to tease out the meaning and ended up with a guess or two! Do councillors have a course on “Council googelby gook” i.e. a language course! before they are let loose at Council meetings? A plain english approach would also save on ink and paper.

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