On being separated by a common language

I remember when the challenges of talking a common language across public services was first brought home to me. I was talking to our Strategic Partnership of public sector agencies about the council’s upcoming CPA inspection and how the Audit Commission would want to talk to partners. To me it was obvious that I meant Comprehensive Performance Assessment. What else could it mean? Turned out that if you work in mental health it’s the Care Programme Approach, for the project manager in the room it was a Critical Path Analysis. The labels we give things are important if we are to reach a common understanding on anything, let alone anything as complex as services for people with challenging circumstances. I sat through numerous partnership meetings convinced that half the people in the room were understanding something different to the others whenever people lapsed into jargon and acronyms. And yet we expected the public to engage and were confused when they didn’t! 

Mark Friedman said this was brought home to him when he considered the following analogy. How would you feel if the pilot, co-pilots and staff on a plane were all using the same set of acronyms but, unknowingly, each with a different understanding of the real meaning. How happy would you be to get on that plane? Now imagine the setting is a hospital? Or a school? Would you get better or learn anything? Mark has developed a jargon construction kit – pick any two of the adjectives and mix with a modifier and you too can sound smart at meetings: measurable systemic objectives. Priority strategic outcomes. Qualitative performance measures. No one will understand what you mean, but they are also unlikely to challenge you as a result, too. 

No wonder public services seem impenetrable to the public: it starts with the language we use. Yet language shouldn’t be a barrier. Suppose we actually talked about outcomes in a language that the person on the street would get. That’s not dumbing down, that’s bringing clarity and accessibility. Do the ends – the outcomes – we are trying to achieve resonate with people’s lived reality? Are they expressed in a way that makes this clear? It’s pretty hard to misinterpret ‘People in Dorset are Healthy’, whereas I challenge anyone to explain how you would recognise ‘provide efficient and value for money services whilst delivering quality front-line services’ or ‘an intuitive, transparent and flexible council’ if you tripped over it. And all too often ends and means are confused – as in ‘we will reduce numbers of young people NEET by X%‘.

I wondered why we insist is using a complicated, technocratic language. Is it – as in the application of the jargon construction kit – so we sound clever? Or superior? Are we worried if we don’t we’ll sound stupid or unintelligent – and what was the point of all those years of education, after all, if we can’t find ways of showing it? I don’t actually know the answer, although I am inclined to the explanation that professions such as legal or accountancy use this as a wall to prevent easy access to understanding. And of course you then need to employ one to translate their own language for you, and so it becomes a mutually reinforcing cycle. 

Whichever may me true, if words are labels given to ideas then why do we choose complicated ones? I remember talking to Ian MacMillan at a conference I was organising and he told me a story of when he was leading some adult education lessons. Walking into the community centre, the sign on the door said ‘Literacy and Numeracy Classes’, which he promptly crossed out and wrote ‘Words and Numbers’. 

I find it hard to talk about clarity of language without incorporating a Dave Trott quote, for his blogs are great examples of clear writing. In one he recites ‘a senior (advertising) planner told me the advice he had been given by his boss on his first day on the job. He said “remember, it’s your job to make the client believe this is an incredibly complicated problem and you’re the only person that can solve it”. That must be the reason we speak in a language ordinary people can’t understand. Because if it sounds too simple, they’ll think anyone can do it.’

Back to my partnership meeting and the mix up over CPA. I knew I had to figure out a way of cutting through this, or else we would triple the length of the meetings with a UN-style set up with policy advisers translating between the language of the different sectors. It was at this point that I figured that outcomes, expressing a desired state that you want to achieve in your communities – ‘all young people in Tower Hamlets are safe’ – was a pretty simple way to go. I also realised that data was a language we could all understand. Everyone can look at a trend graph and engage in a conversation about what it means and what’s going on (what Mark Friedman calls the story behind the curve): chief executives, middle managers, front-line staff, the public. Reinforcing the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Reference: Mark Friedman is the author of ‘Trying Hard is not Good Enough’. 

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