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Kirklees councillors told: ditch the jargon and talk in plain English

Kirklees Council chambers.
Kirklees Council chambers.

“Fundamentally deceptive and undemocratic.”

That’s the damning verdict on jargon-laden council reports and presentations to meetings that can leave the average person utterly bewildered.

During a meeting of Kirklees Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee earlier this month there was much talk of the authority’s multi-million pound Transformation programme.

But during a baffling presentation by one senior officer a councillor was heard to observe: “Sometimes the information gets lost in translation”.

A harsher critic might have pointed to the contents – which were peppered with keywords and phrases such as “our governance needs to be robust, stable but more agile” – and said they were designed to confuse.

The crux of the presentation was a draft report described how the council’s transformation activities had been driven by financial necessity.

Using dense and complex language the officer said “the need to focus on savings became our primary driver” and that savings – or cuts – totalling more than £213 million would be made by the year 2020.

And he admitted that due to the “very internal” nature of current plans the public “would not know what transformation is”.

The Plain English Campaign said Kirklees Council and bodies such as local clinical commissioning groups and NHS foundation trusts were not the only organisations failing to use straight-forward language.

And it said “euphemism-heavy blather” was often used to mask detail and bamboozle readers or listeners.

A spokesman said: “There’s always been a steady and consistent tendency for local councils across the UK to resort to impenetrable language with their communications.

“It’s no accident that the latest buzzword or snappy neologism finds its way into council language, as it’s far easier to hide behind a 500-word vacuum than it is to spend 50 words on an uncomfortable or unpopular truth.

“The idea is very simple: bore people into submission or confuse them into apathy. And it’s fundamentally deceptive and undemocratic.

“For too long councils, as well as representatives from many other industries obliged to deliver clear public information, have declined to deliver basic hard facts.

“This is often to spin away potential criticism with euphemism-heavy blather, but also because they can’t – or don’t want to – convey simple ideas in a simple manner.”

Kirklees Council recently held in-house training for staff over the use of appropriate language when writing reports.

When asked to provide a formal definition of what the council meant by “transformation” the leader of the Labour-led authority, Clr Shabir Pandor, sent a 267-word response.

But the meaning seemed to get lost in translation.

“When the council talks about transformation,” said Clr Pandor, “it is referring to changing the way we do things, not just within the council but with all of our partners.

“It is about making sure that the people of Kirklees have the best experience they can within the resources available to us.”

He added that the council understood the need to keep improving and put people at the centre of what it does, helping them to make informed choices and to remain as independent as possible.

Changes include finding new ways to make the best use of the skills, talents and resources available, “not just within the council, but across the wider partnerships and local communities.

“This means we are encouraging our staff and others to think, behave and work differently.”

Conservative Group leader Clr David Hall was more succinct. He said: “I would hope that the term ‘transformation’ means the process of turning what are slow, bureaucratic and inefficient council services into ones which are efficient, relevant and responsive to the needs and demands of our residents.

“What we don’t want to see are schemes that turn one slow, bureaucratic process into another, or ones which are merely cuts. After all, ‘transformation’ costs money too, and we need to see a return on that investment.”

He added: “There are other definitions: ‘One Council’ was one. No one had any idea what that was. Someone said ‘It’s not a thing, it’s a journey’. It would be far easier if people set out their stall: where does Kirklees want to be in 10 years and how are we going to get there?”