The seductions of rubbish talk

It is perhaps a particular feat of our notionally advanced society that it has contrived to obliterate the possibility of communicating in a language which actually communicates what we wish to say, as distinct from what we think we must say.

Adept are we at chucking words and sentences in one direction, and meaning and apt description in the other. This disjunction is perhaps most profound when the attempt is made to say something intelligible about the matters we most care about and value. Make up your own list of what that might be, but art, education, play, disability rights etc are among the inhabitants of this territory.

Rather than speak clearly in that tongue most dear – that is, speaking ‘human’ – utterance is pummelled into ungainly shapes, contorting itself to fit the pre-set template of managerial non-speak: input, output, outcome, impact.

There is, apparently, a difference between ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’, though whether in practice this amounts to anything more than the poor sucker consigned to fill in a grant monitoring form saying under ‘outcome’ what is said under ‘impact’ but, well, sort of differently, is not clear.

Yes, there is of course some sort of sense to these terms, but left to their own devices, given free range, they flatten and makes grey the richly variegated world we actually inhabit.

This barren, managerial language bites most severely, one might even say aggressively, when applied to richly textured human experience. In the aptly named blog, ‘Love, Belief and Balls‘ – do take a look – Mark Neary, the father of an autistic son writes:

‘It’s coming up to that time of year that I dread… It’s the annual review of whether Steven has achieved the outcomes set by his care plan.
I have to admit that I only look at the “Outcomes” a couple of weeks before the appraisal. For the rest of the 50 weeks of the year, the care plan gathers dust in a lever arch file under my desk. It’s not me being rebellious. It’s just that the care plan objectives are so sterile, so far removed from the way in which Steven and I view his life, as to be meaningless. I write in this blog often of some of the great things Steven gets up to – his jokes, his inventive discos, his conversations, his adventures with the support workers. None of those things make it to the review because, as hard as I might try, I can’t shoehorn them into the four categories we are expected to pay attention to.’

He goes on to list the outcomes to be achieved in the Care Plan. Thus:

1. Reduce Risk Behaviours
2. Access the Community Safely
3. Attend to Personal Hygiene
4. Increase Independence Skills.

This is not human language. It is the language of insult. You may wonder if this is the way the parent of a child should be addressed in the first place.

A blog comment was made. Health warning: those thoroughly immersed in managerial-speak should perhaps skip the next few lines. They may confuse you. The comment:

‘Perhaps you could request another outcome be added – ‘Increase Happiness’. Outputs to be measured: laughter, smiles, eye contact, high fives etc’

To which Mark Neary responds:

‘Don’t be daft. What’s that got to do with a fulfilling life?’

Quite so.

The institutionalisation of fibbing

Looking more widely at voluntary or third sector organisations and projects, they too of course have to learn to speak in this semi-intelligible tongue, and many are quite good at it. It is not the language of apt description being spoken here, but the language of survival. And the need to survive creates its own imperatives.

Organisations seeking funds, be it from the national or local state, or the charitable funding institutions that for the most part ape the thinking and managerial and monitoring practices of statutory bodies, become adept at aligning themselves to funders’ priorities, aiming to sneak under the radar their more durable, core purposes. Thus, be it a play project, or sports project, or synchronised crocheting project, if required, applicants will confirm that funding will of course reduce obesity, and/or enhance community cohesion, and so forth, all on time, and in budget.

Allied to this, is an implicit requirement for funders and fund recipients alike to ensure that success can be claimed for funded programmes. Success is gauged by what is described as ‘evidence’ that evidence identified by indicators, performance criteria and so forth all that input, output, outcome stuff, and sometimes also the new girl (or boy, of course) on the block: impact. All this reduced to quantifiable data.

These factors together combine to create the conditions, almost the necessity, for funded programmes and projects to speak this restricted, distorting language to achieve funding in the first place, and then to stretch, nip, tuck and mould the evidence to fit grant monitoring forms and project/programme reports. It is no more than a form of creative accountancy, similar, perhaps, to the accountancy tricks deployed in tax avoidance, as distinct from illegal tax evasion.

Of course some projects do straightforwardly achieve their funded objectives. Others achieve many worthwhile things, but not what they thought they would achieve, or not in the way initially predicted. But the pre-set grant report format is not the place for informed thoughtfulness.

One can quite see the need for individual projects and organisations to become adept in these forms of pragmatic legerdemain, but there is also a cost, that cost being the shrinking of the territory where raw truth can be told, where questions can be asked, mistakes and mis-assessments acknowledged and pondered over.

What we have here is a form of institutionalised fibbing, where nothing is quite as it says it is. Upon such foundations, it is questionable whether anything durable can be built.

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