Council letter could win nonsense jargon award

Edinburgh City Council may get a dubious award for nonsense. Picture: Greg Macvean
Edinburgh City Council may get a dubious award for nonsense. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Edinburgh City Council are in the running for a cheeky award which celebrates the most mind-numbing written examples of nonsense, gobbledygook, legalese and nonsensical ­jargon in public office.

The Golden Bull Awards, run by the Plain English Society, have been shaming authorities into “clear and concise” communication since 1979 and have now shortlisted a head-spinning council letter to residents affected by the statutory repairs scandal that has since been described as “repetitious and unnecessarily long winded”.

Written by a city official, the baffling missive is intended to update householders on the progress made to hundreds of disputed cases from the long-running saga that saddled the Capital with £30 million of debt.

The statutory repairs system was suspended, then replaced in April last year, amid allegations staff were bribed by some contractors in exchange for lucrative repair projects.

But the stuffy and highbrow language in the 330-word ­letter has stunned recipients and scholars alike.

The terms “ingathered”, “progressing consideration” and “progressing resolution” are among the low-lights.

James McLean, a community ­councillor in Stockbridge, submitted the document to Golden Bull bosses saying it was the “final insult” to ordinary people who were wronged by the scandal.

He said: “I just looked at this letter and thought it was a ­terrible thing to send out to normal folk.

“Even someone who works with words couldn’t make head nor tail of that. The purpose of it seems to be to make things deliberately opaque and not transparent. It would confuse normal folk and it’s a shocking way to treat people.”

Dr Bernard Lamb, President of the Queen’s English Society and author of The Queen’s English and How to Use It, condemned the letter as “very poorly written”.

He said: “One needs to read it more than once to try to understand it, and it still does not make complete sense even then. Putting the message much more briefly would definitely aid clarity.

“The whole effect and message are redolent of an inefficient and procrastinating department with a love of officialese, rather than of clear communication.”

Professor Linda Dryden, director at the Centre for Literature and Writing (CLAW) in Edinburgh Napier University, said the “notion of clarity is sedulously being avoided” in the letter.

She said: “I think the initial problem with this letter is a lack of context. Nowhere is the problem that the letter is referring to made clear.

“From the start, therefore, there is a lack of detail that could help with understanding what the letter is trying to ­convey to the recipient.”

And she added: “To receive such an inconclusive response to a serious financial situation after all this time is insensitive. It took me several attempts at reading the letter to ­understand what it was trying to convey.”

In 2001, council-owned property developer EDI Group received a Golden Bull for its Craigmillar Masterplan Design Guide. while the Edinburgh Evening News was honoured by the society for its use of plain English in 2005.

Tony Maher, manager of the Plain English Campaign, which runs the Golden Bull competition said: “The letter is ­definitely not written in plain English but sadly, not one of the worst we have seen. This letter is confusing and filled with jargon.

“They should know ­better than to use phases such as ‘information to be ingathered’ and ‘process for progressing resolution of these complaints’.

“It is no wonder it is difficult to follow.”

A council spokesman told the Evening News: “The letter was about a complex legal issue but we appreciate the need for clear language and we’ll work hard to avoid any future nominations.”

Track record of dull and downright silly writing

IMPENETRABLE letters and reports from Edinburgh public bodies are not uncommon.

Arms-length council firm EDI and the Craigmillar Partnership were both shortlisted for the Golden Bull Award in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The Plain English Campaign branded the Craigmillar Partnership’s online mission statement one of the worst examples of unintelligible jargon.

Readers were left puzzled by a statement on the website which includes references to “specific policy inputs” and “re-establishing structures and timetables”.

It was suggested that primary school pupils be enlisted to take over writing the corporate literature from the bureaucrats who compiled the site.

The letter

Dear Mr XXXXX,

I am writing to you as one of the householders who have expressed concern about issues within the Property Conservation Service in Edinburgh with whom solicitors instructed by us, Maclay Murray & Spens, have been in contact. There has been a delay in finalising the arrangements to deal with the internal processing of the reports produced by Maclay Murray & Spens which has now been resolved and I am writing to provide you with an update.

I begin therefore with an apology. The vast majority of the first group of householders who were offered the option of speaking with Maclay Murray & Spens have opted to take advantage of that opportunity. While some people have chosen not to take up that offer, and in some other instances there are still outstanding questions to be explored or information to be ingathered, the first stage of the process is now substantially complete. It has, however, taken longer than expected to finalise the process for progressing consideration of the reports within the council prior to the despatch of letters to those of you who have opted to take advantage of the arrangement. I must apologise for that delay. We are conscious that it has taken longer than we would have wished to resolve your complaint. I am now able to advise you that the process for progressing resolution of these complaints has been finalised, and so we are able to proceed to consider reports and to write to those of you who have been in contact with Maclay Murray and Spens.

Therefore, in all instances where the discussion with Maclay Murray and Spens have reached a conclusion, I expect that we will be writing to you again shortly. If thereafter you still have concerns, you will have the opportunity to enter into a shared commercial mediation process with council to take matters still further.

In addition, you will also have the opportunity to refer your complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, 4 Melville Street, Edinburgh, EH3 7NS.