Why even bureaucrats can’t understand bureaucrats

Those of us who thought bureaucratese was a whole different language that merely sounds like English that makes no sense are wrong, but not completely.
Bureaucratese is, in fact, a family of languages as closely connected and mutually unintelligible to each other as English and Dutch.
For instance, friends recently friends received a letter from their local council about a controversial planning matter.
There were four paragraphs, each as indecipherable as the next. The couple, both tertiary educated, couldn’t tell whether the projected been approved. One thought yes, the other no.
Each word was recognisably English, the grammar was correct, the apostrophes were (shock) in all the right spots but the placing of one word after the next created confusion rather than clarity.
The solution? They consulted a state government bureaucrat. To their surprise, the middle-ranking bureaucrat promptly declared the missive unintelligible to her too.
It was in bureaucratese, sure, but a version she was not familiar with. In government, words have many different meanings, depending on context.
Undeterred, the bureaucrat volunteered to consult a planner in the transport department. The planner declared: “It means they have received your correspondence and will consider it in due course.”
In other words, we have your email, we’ll have a think and get back to you.
The dialects of bureaucratese, which to the rest of us presents as a giant forest of gobbledegook in a thicket of vicious acronyms, is more than useful to bureaucrats. It provides a super-fast way of holding intricate conversations about highly complex matters.
Each version of bureaucratese is the dialect of a particular governing tribe honed to such precision that the neighbouring tribes have little chance of interpreting it correctly, and no chance of doing so with certainty.
Planning bureaucrats can’t understand much of what the engineering bureaucrats are saying, who have little idea what the health bureaucrats are so excited about. No one at all knows what the defence people are saying.
No wonder the rest of us are confused.
All of this would be fine if the bureaucracies didn’t play such a crucial role in all our lives.
How do businesses, which have their own issues with jargon, work with government entities when they can’t know whether they have had a yes or no to a plain question asked plainly?
One simple answer would be for bureaucrats to become their own interpreters, working on their ability to switch between the language/dialect of the tribe and something understandable to the rest of us.
This is fine in theory but who wants to abandon the safety of the tribe to be sacrificed on the altar of plain speaking, or worse be accused “dumbing down” important matters of state?
There are always the occasional gifted bureaucrats who manages to use both forms of language with aplomb and to the betterment of their careers.
Bureaucrats have also on occasion been tutored and cajoled into clarity by strong communications managers. Once the manager moves on, though, they usually revert to type, retreating to a form of language that feels comfortable and that bit safer.
For business, the best solution is to ensure access to professionals who understand the language of government, its many dialects and nuances. Individuals, of course, will always have a tougher time.

By |2018-03-19T11:28:34+10:00February 27th, 2018|Opinion|

About the Author:

Seamus Bradley is the director of client services at The Agenda Group and a multi-award-winning journalist and communicator. He has worked in senior editorial roles at The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Herald Sun and RACV. He teaches journalism at Swinburne University and is on the Human Research Ethics Committee at Melbourne IVF. He is is a former board director with Property Initiatives Real Estate (Australia's first full-service non-profit real estate agency), and served on the RACV Community Foundation advisory board.