Wonk-speakPosted: March 10, 2012
“[Our] work combines a radical, civic philosophy with the latest insights in social and economic policy analysis to produce original, implementable solutions. We would like to foster new approaches to economic inequality, investment and group behaviour, so that the benefits of capital, trade and entrepreneurship are open to all. Our work is based on the premise that human relationships should once more be the centre and meaning of an associative society, and that we need to recover the language and practice of the common good. Consequently our ideas seek to strengthen the links between local individuals, organisations and communities that create social capital.”
I’m a fairly educated guy, but I have no idea what this means. I’ve used this kind of wonk-speak myself in the past – especially when I was a post-graduate – but developing better policy depends on using grown-up language.
As George Orwell argued in Politics and the English Language, there’s a link between the health of our politics and the clarity of our language, and vice versa. As Orwell noted: “[Our language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Orwell’s point was that truth in politics is closely connected to truth in language. As he wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Inflated style in particular is often a clue that the author is trying to obscure the reality of a situation. If think tanks are going to influence public culture – which is even more ambitious than informing public policy – then they should speak in plain English.
The way we use language will be critical to our work to develop a new kind of think tank – one based on the practical insight and expertise of the people who use and provide public services everyday. It might not always be a comfortable experience, but working closely with practitioners and the public should help us stay away from the wonk-speak – and keep us honest.