Philip Hensher: On a fast track to joined-up thinking

Jargon is how the professions like to distinguish themselves
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The Independent Online

As we at The Independent – ambassadors for a can-do-culture – go forward in the direction of travel, we constantly champion meaningful dialogue which both engages service-users and promulgates process-driven, tested-for-soundness collaboration. An evidence-based, area-focused vision of customer empowerment will bring edge-fit multi-disciplinary fulcrums downstream, and fast-track benchmark predictors of beaconicity. And when we've done that, we're all going down the pub.

The Local Government Association has circulated a list of 200 words and expressions which, it says, are far too prevalent in management speak. Few people not professionally implicated in local administration understand these terms. The LGA says, very truly, that public bodies should not hide behind impenetrable expressions; that the public should understand what they do, and why they do it. And if you can't understand what they are saying, you can't understand their purpose. The list is a step in the right direction.

It makes interesting reading. Some of it is merely teeth-grinding, as in "area-based", "core value", "level playing field" or our favourite Blairite piece of verbiage, "challenge". Dead metaphors abound; "downstream", "horizon-scanning", "joined-up thinking", "fast-track". Some of it has no obvious meaning at all: "coterminous", "network model", or "performance network".

And some seem explicitly designed to replace perfectly ordinary English words and expressions with what can only be described as a sub-dialect of the language. The chair of the LGA asks, "Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just 'talk to people' instead?"

Anyone who has sat through a professional meeting of any sort in the last decade or two will be able to supply their own list of expressions. Most of them are metaphors of some sort. You can imagine that one quite inventive mind gave birth to each of them at some point. They were taken up by colleagues, repeated until they lost all poetic charm, and now seem to mean almost nothing. The person who first referred to a problematic task as like "herding cats" was a sort of genius, a P.G.Wodehouse of the boardroom. By now, we would rather never hear it again.

A game has sprung up to deal with some of these awful business metaphors, known as Bullshit Bingo. You print out cards with a dozen administrative clichés on it, and tick them off as they come into your meeting. Playing hardball; blue-sky thinking; roadmap; ballpark; etched in stone; low-hanging fruit; reinventing the wheel; brain storm and mind shower; and, of course, thinking outside the box. What box? What on earth does that refer to?

Of course, since the beginning of time, priestly or professional castes have sought to distinguish themselves from the unwashed masses by talking in ways which only they can understand. To talk about "horizon scanning" or "blue-sky thinking" is both to send a message to a potential fellow member of the caste, and to erect a barrier against the mass of the public who can only speak in ordinary ways, who has the bad luck to be generally comprehensible.

My favourite piece of jargon? I heard an arts administrator refer, recently, to a "literature delivery system". I think she meant a library, a bookshop, or perhaps just a book. But I didn't understand, and I don't think I was meant to.