Council carries motion to cut the jargon
What on Earth is a flat-water pool?
In plain English, it’s a swimming pool.
“When I heard it was just a swimming pool because it’s not a wave pool, I laughed,” said Ald. Druh Farrell. “It’s funny, but how much time did we spend thinking about it?”
The carrying of Ald. Druh Farrell’s motion to implement a plain-language policy can mean trashing the “overly-technical language” being used in city hall.
Photo: Sean Sullivan/Calgary Journal
The term “flat-water pool” is one of many descriptions that could have Calgarians scratching their heads when they read public documents or hear city councillors and administrators speak.
This sort of wordy jargon — acronyms like FCSS, LTP and PIPMAC and terms like “amenity space” and “dilapidated vehicle” — are exactly the sort of descriptions that annoy Farrell.
So she made a motion for a plain-language city hall policy, which was carried unanimously by council last month.
The motion directs administration to review the way it uses language in city documents about different projects, programs and facilities.
“I submitted my motion because it’s been an irritant for many years with the wide use of jargon in city hall,” Farrell said. “Plain language policies are used widely in corporations and organizations. So it’s nothing new. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”
City “bafflegab” can be full of acronyms and abbreviations that the public and sometimes even councillors have trouble keeping up with.
Farrell said she’s still waiting to hear from the city manager about how the policy can be implemented, but said that it should be more than just easing up on acronyms.
“It’s not as simple as not using acronyms, it’s simplifying the language so we don’t need acronyms.”
Ald. Andre Chabot said he couldn’t always keep up with all the jargon in city documents.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading a report where I find the definition of the abbreviation somewhere very deep in the report,” he said. “Meanwhile, it’s been referenced five times prior to my actually seeing it spelled out in detail.”
Chabot said it isn’t always the case, but “it’s certainly occupied a lot of my time trying to go through a document to try and find out exactly what this abbreviation meant.”
“Using complicated language isolates,” Farrell said. “If we’re using overly-technical language or language that’s difficult to understand, it isolates between departments, not just our communication with the public.”
For example, she said if the planning department uses jargon, it’s perhaps difficult for the social service end of the City to understand what the planners mean.
“It creates silos. To me, it’s symbolic of complicated thinking.”
Easier use of information online
Last month, a new interactive online version of the Land Use Bylaw, a document spanning almost 800 pages, was released with the intention of being user-friendly.
“If we’re using overly-technical language or language that’s difficult to understand, it isolates between departments, not just our communication with the public.”
— Ald. Druh Farrell
Although the project is unrelated to the plain-language policy carried by council, it shares similar intentions.
Nelson Medeiros, lead planner on the Land Use Bylaw Team, said the challenge was to make the information easier to find and understandable for those who aren’t familiar with the bylaw, whether they want to build a high-rise downtown or a shed in the backyard.
One goal of the online tool is to better utilize staff resources to help interpret information in the bylaw, rather than to help find where the information is referenced.
A search function and a glossary of terms are also tools that are offered in the new version of the bylaw.
The complex key words inside the document can be clicked on by the user to open a pop-up window that displays the definition of the word.
Any parts of the bylaw that are cross-referenced can be clicked on to link the user to the page being referenced.
“Any tool to make it user-friendly would be welcome,” said Farrell, who is on the Planning Commission and refers to the bylaw frequently.
Medeiros said that the Land Use Bylaw is a heavily-referenced document that is normally within the top five most downloaded documents from the City of Calgary website.
“We’re hoping that the ease of information is there, as well as the accuracy in what we’re conveying to our external customers.”