COLUMN

Keep it simple, stupid

There are startling indications that the government now wants to be understood by Canadians

STEWART MacLEOD March 8 1993
COLUMN

Keep it simple, stupid

There are startling indications that the government now wants to be understood by Canadians

STEWART MacLEOD March 8 1993

Keep it simple, stupid

COLUMN

There are startling indications that the government now wants to be understood by Canadians

STEWART MacLEOD

At last, encouraging progress. Your friendly federal government, chronic fumblers in everything that counts—the Constitution, unemployment, budgetary deficits all spring to mind—has finally declared war on incomprehension. It actually wants to be understood— or at the very least, be misunderstood in a language the rest of us can understand.

It wasn’t so long ago, you might recall, that an agency of the United Nations declared Canada the best all-around country in which to live. Now, while not wanting to jump the gun, it’s quite possible the friendly feds will soon bring us the gold medal for communicating.

Lord knows, they’re trying. And with every passing day, more and more Canadians are beginning to grasp just what Ottawa is struggling to say. Not only is the government spearheading the drive with a daring advice booklet, “Plain Language Clear and Simple,” but a whole new private industry is building around it.

The 54-page booklet, widely distributed in government, explains for the benefit of traditionalists, that “plain language writing is a technique of organizing information in ways that make sense to the reader.” Clearly, a good start.

Simplification is the In Thing, just as the Constitution and regional disparity used to be the In Things. There are startling indications that the government actually wants to be understood. And that, you’ll agree, is diametrically opposed to the traditional objective of official obfuscation—to see how many options—and butts—can be covered with one paragraph. Quite apart from the how-to booklet, which comes courtesy of the Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship, we now have a battalion of Ottawa companies attacking official bafflegab for the benefit of the paying public. Furthermore, there’s a whole new breed of consultants roaming the country, and padding wallets, while teaching bureaucrats the beauty of comprehension. In olden times this

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment.

was done in schools. It was called Learning.

Some of the new breed even specialize—to the point of advising male interviewers about the importance of plain appearances to accompany plain talk. One, we’re told, points out that hairy male legs on television are a distraction to plain talk. Long socks please. But let’s not get into the exotic.

There’s one enterprising Ottawa firm, with the apt name of Prosebusters, with a dozen or so verbal simplifiers on staff, ready at the drop of a suffix to tell us what the government, and others, meant to say. It’s a million-dollar business.

The objective of Prosebusters, say owners Cecilia Blanchfield and Norman Bloom is “to stem the growing tide of white-collar word crime.” They set up shop in the right town. According to Blanchfield, their wordsmiths can often shorten government declarations by 60 per cent without any loss in information. Take this sentence from one government department: “To make these determinations requires a flow of information that allows appropriate and timely action to be taken even in relation to activities that are consummated within a very short time span.”

It came out of Prosebusters like this: “Good

judgments require a steady stream of accurate information even when events happen quickly.” This from government: “The interest in all aspects of the cause and resolution of the emergency may be a force in its effective resolution.” Prosebusters: “If you know what caused the problem, it’s easier to fix.”

And who could fail to admire the postal official who declared, “this is an issue that is significant for the region: identification of the locale for the primary mode of delivery.” Prosebusters: “It’s important to put the post office in the right place.”

It’s a crying shame that Prosebusters, or some other free-enterprise word squeezers, didn’t get a shot at this advisory, which, one guesses, is aimed at boaters. “A provision of these regulations that applies to a ship of a size and making a voyage described in that provision also applies to any ship of a size to which the provision applies that is not making the described voyage but is within waters that it would be within if it were making that voyage.” You’re damned right.

Then there was the bureaucrat who enthusiastically answered a call from the auditor general for improved monitoring of job-creation programs. The department, he wrote, “will continue to strategically allocate its program evaluation resources to maximize their effectiveness in meeting the evaluation needs ... it will expand its program evaluation analyses, where cost effective, to take into account

cross-linkages influences____” Need we go on?

Anyway, Blanchfield perhaps had this memo in mind when she said, “We have to expose these crimes against words.”

It goes without saying that Prosebusters, etc., would make short shrift of those “challenged” expressions that are supposed to put a kinder and gentler face on people who aren’t of traditional pin-up quality. Most of us probably never found much fault with “short” until we learned a best friend was “vertically challenged.” And for the benefit of those who don’t have immediate access to a professional simplifier, “gravitationally challenged” means the subject is, well, rather fat.

As the government’s plain-language book tells government writers, “It takes great understanding of one’s subject and of one’s audience to write plainly.” So, what about the supervisor who helpfully told staffers that “this machine is for rethermalizing plated meals.” Fortunately, Prosebusters got there in time. “Use this to heat up your lunch.”

But everything has its downside. And the way things are now going, it’s only a question of time before Canada once again has “poor people.” “It’s much more tasteful to have an “impoverished underclass.” And who knows, we might even find old-fashioned drunks among us. No more victims of “habitually detrimental lifestyle behavior.”

But it’s unclear whether this is uniquely Canadian or whether we are talking “globalism,” which would, of course, demand a more “proactive” approach on “a level playing field.”

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.