Gov prose

Where the gobbledygook flows freely

A friend of mine who works for the federal government often asks me for help when writing a report. Why wouldn’t she? I am, after all, a professional arranger of words and an expert on even the most obscure rules of English grammar. (Example: “i” before “e” except after Labour Day.)

Our discussions sometimes get heated. I love short, clear sentences. There is beauty in simplicity. But my friend tends to favour longer sentences. She also likes to generously sprinkle in acronyms and jargon. Of course, it’s not really her fault.

You write what you read. After years in the public service, the “sound” of terrible government writing is lodged in her brain. It is only natural that similar gobbledygook flows from her fingers.

Several years back, when I worked for the federal government, the thing I noticed most about documents was the redundancy. Words were repeated many times within sentences. Sentences repeated content from previous paragraphs. So much redundancy. So. Much. Redundancy.

When my superiors learned of my ability to place nouns and verbs in semi-coherent order, I was asked to edit a manual of office procedures. Oh, what fun. Every sentence a 50-word monster in need of major pruning. Every page a bloated mess that could be summed up in a paragraph.

To illustrate, let’s play a game of Spot the Repeating Word in Public Sector Prose (SRWPSP).

From National Defence: “Although there are some areas where the military justice system and the grievance system can benefit from improvements, overall the system is operating well.”

Which system, exactly, is operating well? The first system? The second system? Both systems? We need a system to systematically systematize all these systems.

In fairness, that sentence isn’t half-bad. I perused other government websites and found absolute monstrosities. Consider this eye-glazer from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat:

“The IT modernization strategy calls for the standardization and consolidation of administrative IT systems in the back office across the Government of Canada as the principal means of freeing up existing departmental IT resources so that these may be redirected to the renewal of departmental aging mission-critical systems, consistent with departmental plans.”

Wow. Where to begin? It’s too long (52 words). It has a repeating word (“departmental”). It has an acronym (“IT,” also repeated three times). It has ridiculous buzzwords (“modernization,” “standardization”) and the hilarious phrase “departmental aging mission-critical systems.”

Now take a look at this beast, courtesy of Environment Canada: “Having identified energy efficiency as a key priority, the Energy Sector Sustainability Table (ESST) established the Energy Efficiency Working Group (EEWG) to provide expert advice and recommendations on how governments, working with other key players, could transform the market so that Canada could become a leader in energy efficiency.”

Maybe several other “key players” should form another “working group” to identify sentence “efficiency” as a “key priority.” At very least, some irrelevant players in a non-working group could identify unimportant priorities.

Then there are sentences free of acronyms and triplicated words but so vague they leave you baffled. Like this one from Industry Canada:

“The firm may be contemplating stakeholder engagement to better understand its impacts, to help articulate its values, mission, strategy, commitments and implementation, to facilitate a regulatory approvals process, to participate in measurement and reporting, to avert or solve a crisis, or to proactively improve relationships.”

Ever wonder how to say nothing in only 45 words? See above.

Writing in the government has actually improved a lot, my friend tells me. The higher-ups insist that reports be written in plain language. That language, apparently, is Klingon.

I offer two practical suggestions to help bureaucrats present information in a way that is easier to understand and more likely to be retained. Run everything you write through a readability test. Your word processor probably has one. If not, use a free online test. It will give you various readability metrics, and your goal is to lower those numbers.

The average number of words per sentence in this column (minus government bunkum): 10. Reading grade level: 8.

The average number of words per sentence in the body text of Report on the State of Aging IT Across the Government of Canada: 34. Reading grade level: 20.

Then print out what you’ve written, find an empty room, close the door and read it out loud. The eye forgives convoluted writing. The ear abhors it. You’ll be crossing out clutter, acronyms and jargon in no time.

Too much time and money is spent in the public sector to produce confusing documents. Improving government writing should be a standardized mission-critical key priority in all modernized departmental working-group systems.

Profile: Dr. Jane Philpott
CMAJ
Profile: Dr. Jane Philpott
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