Coun. Farrell hopes to defeat ‘confusing’ city hall jargon for good with 2nd plain language policy

Update Jan. 18, 2020: Council voted unanimously to support the plain language policy motion late Monday evening.

The original article appears below. 

A Calgary councillor has submitted a notice of motion that calls on city hall to use plain language in an effort to be more inclusive — again.

In 2011, city council approved a motion put forward by Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell to create a plain language policy.

Its goal was to help the city communicate clearly with its constituents — and avoid language described as overly technical, ambiguous, confusing and isolating.

But a decade later, Farrell says the bureaucratic language persists, so she’s facing off against jargon a second time with a motion titled, Plain Language Policy, Again. 

“We’ve created a system that isolates us,”  Farrell said Wednesday on the Calgary Eyeopener.

“A good portion of what we do at the city is communicate with Calgarians, so if we’re not communicating clearly, if our language is impossible to understand, then of course Calgarians aren’t engaged properly.”

Flat water pool, fenestration, street wall

According to Farrell, the language used at city hall is unnecessarily complex.

To cite a few examples, it includes terms and acronyms such as “flat water pool” (that’s a swimming pool), “fenestration” (that’s a window), “street wall” (that’s a main street with buildings beside the sidewalk) and CPC (that’s the Calgary Police Commission — but also the Calgary Planning Commission).

And in the 10 years since the first motion, Farrell says it has only gotten worse.

“Even between departments, I get emails where I often have to bounce them back and say, ‘What does this mean?’ And I’ve been there almost 20 years,” Farrell said.

The latest plain language motion, which cleared the committee on Tuesday, is written in acronyms that Farrell said are intended to illustrate her point.

With sentences that read, “CMLC must apply to the COC PD’s CP BU FM for a MU-2f4.0h20 based DC LOC in a TOD,” it is intentionally composed to boggle the mind. But it all makes sense, she said.

“It’s purposefully cheeky. It throws in a whole bunch of crazy stuff that’s real, real acronyms, real sort of confusing language,” Farrell said. “But … there’s the serious angle here of communicating clearly.”

‘We’re forgetting that this is about people’

The first motion was well received and even garnered national attention, according to Farrell.

During that go-round, they tried spot-auditing reports, and considered “swear jar” competitions between departments to playfully police acronym use.

But habits are hard to break, and Farrell said this is a bad one.

And sometimes, she acknowledges, use of technical language is appropriate — but when constituents are trying to interpret discussions, it should be simplified.

“A lot of what we do at the city is really technical. And so I can understand technical terms coming into it when it’s within a department,” Farrell said.

“But when they go public, and when they’re speaking at council, the public is listening, then we need to make sure that the language is easily understood.”

The motion is now on its way to council and will be debated next week.

“If it’s complicated, if it’s jargony, if it’s, you know, isolating, then I would say that maybe we’re not thinking as clearly and simply,” Farrell said.

“And then, we’re forgetting that this is about people.”

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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