Lecture 4: Camden Council, Case Study of Jargon
Camden Council Case Study of Poor Written Communications
Let us look at an example of terminology in a budget document of the local government of Camden, a borough in central London.
Camden Council is committed to improving communications with its residents not only because the council believes it is the right thing to do. It also believes that by explaining policy proposals to residents clearly and getting their feedback, the council will be able to make better decisions on how to allocate its budget. Another reason for wanting to improve its website is to save the costs of employing staff to field calls or emails from residents who cannot find the information they need online.
A 2019 review of the council’s financial strategy devotes a page to a project called “transforming the customer experience.” The outline of the policy includes the following:
“We will continue systems-thinking work to identify failure demand, the underlying causes of it and co-design solutions to reduce it, ensuring we design services around our residents and service users.”
After reading the sentence a couple of times, I was still not sure if “systems-thinking work” and “failure demand” were fancy ways of saying something simpler, or if they were terminology. Many councillors and residents would probably wonder the same thing.
“Systems-thinking” turns out to be an approach used increasingly in fields such as computing, engineering, and management that involves analysing how the parts of any system interact with each other over time and with other systems, often leading to unintended consequences. One example is using the pesticide DDT to kill mosquitoes. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972 because of its harmful effects on people and animals.
“Demand failure” occurs when an organisation attempts to fill a need with a product or service that customers or clients do not want and cannot use.
The proposed project is significant as it requires an investment of £408,000 to save almost £1.3 million between April 2020 and April 2022. Using simple words that residents can easily understand would be a step in the direction living up to the project title, “transforming the customer experience.”
In fact, this specialist vocabulary is not needed for this entry. Here is my rewrite:
“We will continue to analyse the way the various components of our systems work together and with other systems to avoid unintended consequences, identify areas where we wind up wasting money on services residents do not want, and understand how such mistakes come about. We will work with residents to design better ways of providing customers with services they do need and want.”
What if the council wanted to include the terminology for the benefit of specialists? If so, it might consider something like this:
“We will continue to use system analysis, an approach to operating and managing resources that seeks to avoid unintended consequences by looking closely at how parts of a system work with each other and other systems over time. This analysis will help identify demand failure, which occurs when money is wasted on services customers do not want. It will also help us determine how such mistakes come about. We will work jointly with residents to design better ways of providing customers with services they do need and want.”
Spotting two examples of terminology in one sentence leads me to suspect the budget review is peppered with jargon. The interested resident or committed councillor is likely to tire of looking up all the jargon. They might decide it is easier to phone the council to explain.
The council employee who takes the call is unlikely to know all the answers to all the questions as the review, which runs more than 160 pages, covers many projects. The staff member would likely need to contact one or more people to find the answers. Once they have the answers, the staff member must ring or email the person who posed the question. That means lots of time and money which could have been saved by writing in plain language.
Next, let us look at how rewriting the sentence in plain language contributes to the quality of written communications according to the criteria we set out in the introduction to this course.
Impact of plain language
We defined good written business communications as writing that is clear, concise, convincing, and engaging. In this example, by substituting terminology with plain language, we have improved the sentence in these ways:
Clear: More if not most councillors and residents will understand
Concise: The plain language rewrite is longer. Still, it is concise. Being succinct does not mean cramming ideas at the expense of clarity. It means using as many words as are necessary—no more, no less.
Convincing: The original sentence did not make clear that the project would use a formal system of analysis to ensure that council money is used wisely to deliver services that residents will use. Now that this point is clear, residents can understand why the investment in the project costs is substantial, and what the project will achieve
Engaging: When people can understand easily, they are more likely to keep reading, and the more they read and understand, the more likely they will be encouraged to participate in local government by offering feedback
The moral of the story is that jargon and terminology are not only annoying to non-specialists. They also fail to communicate important information.