A few weeks ago the Local Government Association published a list of words which hinder communication among council staff and deplete the dignity of anyone using them. This quickly became known as the bullshit list, and was the subject of a great deal of web comment, even spawning the brilliant Bullshit detector. Arising from chat on the B3TA boards, it analyses government websites and gives a score based on the frequency of appearance of the misleading words to create a table of the worst offenders. Leading the pack at the moment is the audit commission, with a score of 476. You can view their site with the offending phrases highlighted here.
The reason so many people find these euphemisms unpleasant is that they become a convenient way to create lots of steam for government and others to hide behind. Putting up a poster with “community engagement” and “citizen empowerment” slogans on it is no substitute for actually talking to the public; neither is “Thinking outside the box” a substitute for doing some real work.
I saw an excellent example of this on my recent visit to the national media museum in Bradford, which was hosting an exhibition of baby photography in collaboration with a project called Born in Bradford. Various panels adorned the exhibition justifying the concept, full of the phrases we’ve come to recognise. If you visit the exhibition’s website you will read:
It’s interesting that there is someone in whose job remit it falls to ‘establish ownership’ by the people of Bradford and make the research clear to them, because nowhere in the exhibition or the museum website will you see any explanation of what the born in Bradford project is for. The general sense is that it’s some kind of health survey, but details are thin on a ground strewn with meaningless buzzwords and covered with pictures of proud participating parents and their closely monitored offspring.
If you go to the BiB website however, there is an explanation that many of the city’s residents might not have heard about from their community facilitator.
Bradford’s infant mortality rate is amongst the highest in the country. This is why from October 2006, all babies born in Bradford are being recruited into the Born in Bradford research project.
So the idea is to do a cohort study of children likely to die at a young age and try to identify what the risk factors are. That explanation is considerably clearer, but put like that, the council and health authority fear, you might not get so many people signing up.
You can see why they played it safe and hid this very worthwhile project beneath a layer of bollocks, but had they been more honest might they have found that treating people as adults and allowing hem to decide whether or not this projects deserves their support (and it absolutely does) might have resulted in a genuine bit of community-building?