Literacy ministry told to use plain English in reports

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The Independent Online

The Government department responsible for universities is castigated today for its "impenetrable" language "peppered with jargon" in its reports.

MPs on the Commons select committee monitoring the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – which is also responsible for courses in basic literacy for adults – have told its civil servants to use plain English.

It accuses them of using "jargon-riddled phrases" and "euphemisms deflecting likely failure". It cites part of the annual report, which says the department has a "challenging growth strategy for 2010": that is, it is unlikely to meet targets. Other examples of obscure language include sentences such as: "An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology."

Ian Whatmore, the department's Permanent Secretary, conceded the language in its annual report was "inaccessible" and promised to bring in advisers to help write this year's report.

The MPs' report says: "We recommend that the 2009 departmental report be written in plain English, be shorter than the 2008 report and use terminology appropriate to its function".

The MPs say the department has resorted to the use of jargon to mask the fact that it has no clear idea about the policy direction it is pursuing and how it will achieve Prime Minister Gordon Brown's goal for it to make Britain "one of the best places in the world for science, research and innovation".

The report says the department has a "reputation for innovative policy-making approaches, fresh policy insights, bold points of view", but it was only set up 18 months ago by Mr Brown, when he hived off from schools the responsibility for universities and further education.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the select committee, said the department's report was unhelpful. David Willetts, the Conservatives' universities spokesman, said the department "has not found its feet".

The department refused to answer the criticisms of its writing style but said it had achieved a great deal. "We recognise a number of useful points the committee has made on last year's report written early in 2008 when the department was less than a year old and will respond fully in due course," it said.

Say what? Departmentspeak

"An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology. The capital investment strategy will continue to renew and modernise further education establishments to create state of the art facilities."

Even Ian Whatmore, the department's Permanent Secretary, could not explain what this meant when asked by MPs. The department itself refused to translate it to The Independent yesterday.

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