"The inevitable descent into government gobbledygook"

Illustration: Pat Campbell

This month, 1000 or so bright graduates from across the country will move to our city to join the Australian Public Service. The typical grad is no cleanskin: she's 32 years old and has held a range of other jobs; she no doubt has set habits. Yet Canberra will change her markedly, and not always in helpful ways. Within weeks, a new idiom will begin to infect her once clear speech and writing. Within months, she will succumb entirely to TLAs.

(At this point, pedants may shout out that the TLA – or three-letter acronym – is not an acronym at all; it's an initialism. I hope they can put this objection aside, just for this article.)

Only Defence staff would know that MANPADS are not incontinence underwear. 

The local government unveiled a new TLA for the entire city late last year: the place formerly known as Canberra is now, simply, CBR. It's fitting, as impenetrable arrays of capital letters are what the ACT is all about. When Alexander Downer became foreign minister in 1996, he was handed a brief to help him understand his new role. It reportedly included a 100-page glossary to decrypt the thousands of acronyms and other short forms he needed to know to be across his portfolio.

NEWS: EMBARGOED until Thursday: Brand Canberra will be launched this Thursday. L-R Pic shows Terry Shaw Managing director Englobo group and Michelle Melbourne Chair of the Canberra Business Council next to the official logo.    25th November 2013. Photo by MELISSA ADAMS of The Canberra Times.

Impenetrable arrays of capital letters are what the ACT is about. Photo: Melissa Adams

Each year, the APS's new recruits undergo a similar, though perhaps less extreme, initiation. They receive an AGSN (Australian government staff number) that stays with them for their career. They must quickly learn the arcane nomenclature of whichever agency or department hired them. For some workplaces, that's easy; for others, it's tougher. For Defence Department employees, it's a Sisyphean task.

Military personnel prefer acronyms to words, and the Russell bureaucracy creates jargon faster than any newcomer can hope to master it. Only Defence staff would know that MANPADS are not incontinence underwear. (It's a man-portable air defence system, which itself needs translation: a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile.) Among Defence's most important documents are PACMAN and PACMATE (the pay and conditions manual and its accompanying "administration and technical explanation"). They contain thousands of pages and are effectively too large to print. The latest list of updates to the two volumes was itself 302 pages long. In Russell, no one has any intention of being understood.

The incoming graduates will also find that parts of their new workplace language are embedded into Canberra's social life. They will be invited to join SNoG. They will aspire to be an AS, not an ass. Strangers will ask them at parties: "So, what level are you?" For some people, the answer – be it APS4, APS5 or EL2 – will determine whether they're worth getting to know. The Abbott government has made life a little easier: its decision to simplify administrative arrangements means public servants no longer work at places such as DIICCSRTE, DBCDE, DEEWR or FaHCSIA, and sparked raucous celebrations among staff who had to answer every phone call by reciting their department's full name.

SPECIALX HQ SH   News   Canberra   Defence HQ   The main defence buildings in Canberra at Russell   Photograph taken by Andrew Taylor   jat020607.001.002.jpg

In the defence bureaucracy at Russell, no one has any intention of being understood. Photo: Andrew Taylor

Of course, all this is normal: every subculture has its linguistic quirks. The problems, however, begin to emerge when public servants interact with others. Ministers in the previous government became so frustrated by the bureaucracy's dense language that an official list of acceptable short forms was created: phrases that public servants need not write out in full (for example, "ALP" rather than "Australian Labor Party"). But the daily workplace jargon drifted inevitably into ministerial briefs. One minister was so annoyed he demanded staff spell out every short form. However, another was reportedly furious when his public servants took him for a fool and wrote "Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)", as though he didn't know what ASIO stood for; he ensured that the department knew of his displeasure.

During his brief tenure, former Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher tried to ban acronyms and abbreviations from his office; he called them a "secret code" most Australians didn't understand. After taking on the job, he quickly became appalled by bureaucrats' written language, saying many of the complaints he received from the public were caused by "poor, or even lazy, communication". "This is partly because many agencies see the way they communicate as a side issue to the services they provide, whereas the two are inextricably linked or indeed the same thing," he said.

Asher waged war on bureaucratese; he was particularly peeved by computer-generated letters, into which public servants cut and pasted "great tracts of impenetrable legislation". He said the public service's jargon and its dense or officious writing cost taxpayers millions of dollars. He cited a NSW government study, which found that agencies that adopted plain English had halved their drafting time, cut the time managers spent editing by about 40 per cent, and greatly increased their clients' satisfaction ratings. The US Navy had also moved to using simple English in its memos, and it found the switch saved it $350 million.

Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher in his Canberra office on Friday 29 July 2011 for AFR/Boss magazine article by Katie Walsh.
Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Former ombudsman Allan Asher tried to wage war on bureaucratese and banned acronyms in his office. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax

Alas, Asher resigned in 2011 after an unrelated controversy; his war was quickly forgotten.

Language consultant Francis Walsh has trained many of the public servants who began their careers in Canberra. He says it's normal and efficient to abbreviate language, because the proper nouns of government programs and entities "are just too cumbersome to use all the time". "Some people burst out laughing halfway when they introduce themselves and try to say their title and department. Public service meetings can be long enough ... If you said everything correctly, without acronyms, it would take forever."

The trouble, he says, is bureaucrats "shorten everything for themselves and then forget when they're talking to people who aren't in their group. And that group might be a rather closed world. Language needs to be about the audience: you change it to suit the audience."

Rod Clement

Cartoon: Rod Clement

Walsh says public service graduates regularly joke about how their speech changes. "They can tell how far you've been brought into the culture by the use of acronyms. If you go back to your home town after three months and no one can understand you, they say you'll become a very successful senior public servant!"

Of course, that doesn't mean they'll be successful at serving the public; nor much help to colleagues. As one reader told me: "I get emails like 'IAW SOP 4.2 submit form G150 by COB FRI201213' and I want to throw the computer out the window."

So, to our new grads, CBR welcomes you. Please, delve deep into APS bureaucratese, as you'll need it. But do remember, on occasion, to stop and smell the prose. Your families and friends, and the public, will appreciate it.

Which acronym, abbreviation, initialism or other short form do you most despise and is most overused? Tell us via the comments below.