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Accountability and language: Obfuscation in action

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Stop paying consultants who are parrots for corporate-speak, and let’s really get some meaning back into words like ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘justice’, asserts our correspondent.

We are all for accountability and transparency and public participation in government. We are all for our public officials informing us of what they are doing, for they, after all, are either (in the case of elected officials) representing us or (in the case of the civil service) paid for by us and theoretically working for the public good. As a minimum, we should expect them to tell us what they are doing in our name and with our money.

But this of course has given rise to a whole new industry: obfuscation. Obfuscate – from the latin ‘obfuscare’, to darken – meaning “to make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand”. The obfuscation industry is an industry designed to hide inertia, mistakes, oversights, corrupt practices – or, put simply, the truth. And a crucial resource for the obfuscationists is language: its manipulation, twisting, or even invention.

War has always encouraged the destruction of truth, amongst other things. The Iraq wars exemplified the tradition mastered earlier in the century by Goebbels, of repeating phrases and euphemisms over and over again until they become subliminally acceptable.

Consider such wonderful phrases as ‘collateral damage’ (blowing innocent civilians to pieces), ‘decapitation strike’ (to assassinate someone, usually a leader, you don’t like), the apparently innocent ‘regime change’ (a good imperialist invasion), ‘pacification’ (killing and wanton destruction to ‘win the war’) and ‘embedded journalists’ (to describe not a situation where the press have nothing better to do than sleep, but where they are subject to propaganda and censorship and report only ‘our side’ of the story). Or how about the now infamous ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (to describe what the nasty and evil other side have got, or, in Iraq’s case, what they haven’t got. Never mind that ‘we’ probably have all these weapons and more). WMD is of course linked to the crass use of the label ‘terrorists’ to describe anyone we don’t like and don’t want anyone else to like. Come to think of it, ‘friendly fire’ has to be one of the most misleading euphemisms of all.

But war is not the only arena where language is happily used to disguise or obfuscate what is happening. Local government is increasingly an arena for its use. The demand for accountability from our public officials and representatives seems to have given rein to a whole new vocabulary for obfuscation – to the point where the Local Government Association (LGA) in UK has recently published a list of some 250 words that it declares “should not be used by the public sector when providing information to the public”. The list has been drawn from the practice of governments (local and national), quangos, the corporate world and, not unsurprisingly, the European Union (EU).

According to the LGA’s chairwoman: “The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases. Why do we have to have a webinar (meeting held over the internet), trialogue (discussion between three groups with different ideologies) for the wellderly (older people who are not sick) when we could just talk about caring for the elderly?”


The words and phrases seem to come from different influences. Good neo-liberal practice of attempting to reduce local government to nothing more than market economics has seen the wholesale importation of words or phrases like ‘customer journey’, ‘clienting’, the very in-vogue ‘outcomes and outputs’, ‘delivery chain’, and ‘menu of options’. (Consumption is everything.)

Many of us might view some of the terms as wishful thinking: ‘dialogue’ (the meeting the boss calls for when he wants to lay down the law (= monologue)); ‘forward planning’ (an interminable process that takes forever and leads nowhere); ‘sector wise’ (no one knows what they are talking about; wisdom has nothing to do with it); ‘resource efficient’ (we don’t want to spend any money); ‘core principles’ (the things which are cut out, as in ‘apple’); ‘service users’ (might as well be tennis players for what we know about them); ‘knowledge bite’ (c/f apple again); ‘innovative capacity’ (if only).

One might venture that the exorbitant fees charged by the consultancy industry has given rise to the need for them to justify such fees by the use of ever more extraordinary concepts. Have you come across ‘blue sky thinking’, ‘low hanging fruit’, ‘hereditament’, ‘apportionment’, or ‘cashable’?

I imagine none of us would miss the sort of nonsensical jargon that might be epitomised by the following: “The participatory parameters give a paradigmblue-sky thinking that actions peer performance networks, which can act as provider vehicles for process-driven incentivising. The leverage this will give to lifetime neighbourhoods provides engagement for joined-up functionalities and for engaging users in best practice and future-proofed synergies.” for

Yet this is what good public and private money is apparently squandered on. And all wanna-be researchers and consultants seem to be hell-bent on jumping on the bandwagon. They absorb such phrases as ‘capacity building’, ‘empowerment’, ‘strategic partnerships’ and ‘can-do culture’ as eagerly as children learning to play with their first toy. Where would we be without such phrases as ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘holistic governance’, ‘level playing field’, ‘democratic mandate’, and ‘catalysts’? Though we could probably dispense with ‘headroom for change’ or having a ‘gateway review’ or an ‘ideas shower’ (the mind boggles).

Many will argue that we would be struggling without half the words contained on the LGA list. But what the list should do is to remind us that using words without understanding their meaning is, as they say, meaningless. And of course, it is more than likely to be an exercise in obfuscation – to hide, for example, the paucity of wisdom of the consultant, the evilness of a boardroom decision, or the poor service of the local government.

The words and phrases should be taken to represent the sort of junk thinking that should just be binned (preferably along with the people who use them). Unfortunately, in this world where re-cycling is (or should be) preferred, it seems easier for the unquestioning acceptance and repetition of meaningless stock phrases that only help to obscure the reality of what is happening both in corporate and local government circles. Our task is simple: think about the language, think about what it represents, challenge any attempt to obscure, to run away from responsibility, to run away from accountability. Stop paying consultants who are parrots for corporate-speak, and let’s really get some meaning back into words like accountability and transparency and justice.

And where when we say ‘to be honest’ or ‘lessons will be learned’, we actually mean it.


The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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