Plain English in civil service communications: brevity combined with clarity #20yearrule

Lauded in his day as one of finest minute writers in the civil service, Ken Bloomfield – the then head of the NI Civil Service – wrote to his Permanent Secretaries in May 1988 with a plea for plain English communications.

Brevity should be combined with clarity.

It is an important skill to be able to present complex issues in clear and simple ways.

Winston Churchill’s personal minutes from WWII were commended as a good example of wording that was “always simple and their intentions transparently clear”.

Even in simple letters, a good short word is generally to be preferred to a mediocre longer one. I am always irritated by draft replies thanking the writer for his letter “concerning” this, that or the other. There is nothing wrong with the simple word “about”.

If we avoid like the plague “the language of the bureaucracy” we will more readily develop a turn of phrase and a tone of voice allowing us to communicate effectively with people at large.

The large number of scribbles over the copy of the letter that was released in an Industrial Development Board file – DED/21/8/60 – yesterday under the 20 Year Rule at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland suggests that the IDB took the message to heart!

Clearly it’s a memo that should be circulated annually.