Jargon needs busting, says academic

By Rob O’Brien

Local government in Australia should heed the warning set by the UK and take an axe to bureaucratic jargon in the public sector, a leading academic has said.

The UK Local Government Association (LGA) called for councils to drop phrases such as ‘blue sky thinking’ when communicating because it was confusing for communities and counter-productive.

A list of 200 words and phrases were included in the LGA’s anti-jargon crusade including well-worn government speak such as ‘holistic government’, ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘multi-agency’, ‘value-added’ and ‘revenue streams’.

Baden Eunson, an English professor at Monash University and author of C21: Communicating in the 21st Century, said the use of jargon in the Australian public sector was as prevalent as the UK and it worked against councillor’s best interests.

“Councillors should start thinking about their own welfare when talking to communities using jargon,” he said. “If there are no ambiguities – the message gets through."

According to Eunson one of several cardinal sins committed by local governments in Australia was the use of long, complicated sentences which overused the passive voice in documents and press releases.

Eunson said that organisations tended to develop their own cultures and way of talking which was at odds with the people they served.

“They close in on themselves as a self-contained group, use their own interior language, which after a while becomes a wall. Plain English will break down those walls.

“That type of bureaucratic speak takes over almost inevitably I think,” he said. “When people don’t get those messages they become very cynical about politicians, and we have a very low standard of debate in all forms of government in Australia compared to the UK."

Eunson added that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had not helped improve language issues in the public sector with a habit of using diplomatic jargon in parliament and in dealing with the press.

“He’s a classic DFAT man [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade]. The point about being a diplomat is that you don’t say anything… I think sooner or later he’s going to have to speak as normal people do."

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