The Daily Telegraph reports that UK Education Secretary Michael Gove has issued guidelines to civil servants on how to make their written communication more comprehensible to the general public. According to Rowena Mason, Gove suggested using “will my mum understand this?” as a good rule of thumb when it comes to evaluating how straightforward and easy to understand each letter is.
To aid officials in this goal, Gove recommended reading each letter aloud as well as using famously plainspoken yet eloquent writers like George Orwell as a model. Gove pointed out that the tendency of officials to use “political rhetoric” and overly complex language serves as a barrier between the civil service and the people they are supposed to be helping.
Ordering them to “cut out unnecessary words”, he said: “Rather than writing “the policy that we are introducing is intended to drive a change in behaviours on the part of teachers with respect to the poorest and most disadvantaged children and young people” say “the policy will change how teachers behave towards poorer students”.
Mr Gove, a former journalist, who studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, said officials should introduce one idea per paragraph, use a sympathetic tone and make sure they spell the recipient’s name correctly.
When looking for examples of what to avoid, Gove used the correspondence style of Sir Humphrey, the famous second banana of the popular mid-80s British sitcom “Yes, Minister.” Sir Humphrey served as chief civil servant for a government minister and his trademark was the use of overly complex and needlessly florid language.
Sir Humphrey is a master of obfuscation and manipulation, often making long-winded statements such as, “In view of the somewhat nebulous and inexplicit nature of your remit, and the arguably marginal and peripheral nature of your influence within the central deliberations and decisions within the political process, there could be a case for restructuring their action priorities in such a way as to eliminate your liquidation from their immediate agenda.”
Gove wrote that resorting to such language is an exercise in “self-regarding pomposity.” Instead, officials should strive to be clear and concise when composing their letters to avoid alienating the public.
Gove has long been an advocate of getting down to the basics. In addition to Orwell, Gove also said Christopher Hitchens could serve as an example of a writer who could communicate complex ideas using clear and simple language.
Gove’s ten rules for clear writing, first reported in The Mail on Sunday, is only the latest effort by Tory ministers to improve the communication skills of their staff.
The senior Tory’s intervention comes after several attempts by Government ministers to improve the writing of their staff.
When she was the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening sent employees in her department a five-page essay on grammar in 2011.
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, also drew up guidelines on how officials should use clauses and semi-colons after taking on the job last year.