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Plain speech we all have a stake in

An effort to ban buzzwords sends shock waves around the world.

By Ruth Walker / July 18, 2008



It was like shooting fish in a barrel, except that in this case, the fish jumped into the barrel themselves and advertised their availability via press release.

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Britain's Local Government Association released a list a few weeks ago of 100 management buzzwords that officials should avoid in communications with the public. The Associated Press story about the list was picked up widely; the blogosphere had great fun with it, too. Imagine that. Bureaucrats using jargon. I'm shocked, shocked.

Particular favo(u)rites were predictors of beaconicity, coterminosity, and revenue streams. This last one suggests some particularly lovely imagery: One imagines the revenue stream meandering through the verdant meadow, flowing toward the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But, alas, revenue stream is just a fancy way of saying "money."

Coterminosity is a bit of gobbledygook to refer to two districts in one. In American terms, if a water district served the same geography as a given school district, the two would be coterminous. A predictor of beaconicity is something about a government program that makes it likely to be imitated in other places.

A lot of these "nonwords" richly deserve to be laughed out of the public square. But some seem to have at least the germ of a good idea behind them – "single point of contact," for instance. American officials sometimes call it "one-stop shopping." And the opposite of that is what? Hmm, how about "getting the runaround"? Anyone who has ever spoken with six different offices at city hall to find out who's responsible for the sidewalk being all torn up for three months would welcome a "single point of contact," it seems to me.

All large organizations have much in common: Witness the popularity of "The Office." But the for-profit and the nonprofit sectors envy each other in certain ways, I suspect. Thus corporate managers head off to retreats to craft mission statements to define their companies in nobler terms than just profit and loss. Nonprofits have a mission built in, but long for the crisp metric of a bottom line and so strive to be more "businesslike."

Thus we have social service agencies and even healthcare facilities borrowing terms from the for-profit world to refer to those whom they serve: "client" or "customer" or even "guest." By this logic one could say both the manager of a five-star hotel and the warden of the local prison are both in "the hospitality sector," except that one serves guests in power suits and the other serves those in orange jumpsuits.

Bureaucracies also tend to glom onto clunky noun phrases when they'd be better off with real sentences. Instead of throwing around terms like "stakeholder engagement" they should say, "We need to talk with the people who live here to find out what they think."

I remember when "stakeholder" popped onto my screen in this civil-discourse sense. It was when I was in Germany, and the foreign press association invited an official of one of the financial institutions for a newsmaker lunch. A hot topic of the day was the differences between "Anglo-Saxon capitalism," with its relentless focus on "shareholder value," and the Continental approach.

The latter was seen (in the German view, at least) to take better account of the interests of employees, customers, and the local community in which a business operates. I can imagine all this could make a property-rights purist a little uneasy. But for an umbrella term to refer to those with an interest, albeit not an ownership interest, in something, we could do worse than "stakeholder."

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