A whole-of-government guide to tortured syntax

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, Dec. 31, 2013


IN the bad old days before bureaucrats wrote mission statements, the job of the Victorian Education Department was to run schools.

Today the department manages “a high-quality, coherent, birth-through-adulthood learning and development system” that costs $11.1 billion a year to run. The department’s job used to be to dispense education; today it exists “to support Victorians to build prosperous, socially engaged, happy and healthy lives”.

Painful as it may be to hear syntax being tortured in this fashion, departmental annual reports can serve a purpose. If following this trail of gibber leads to the abolition of an under-stretched bureaucracy, the English language will not have suffered in vain.

Once bureaucrats content themselves with “increasing awareness”, “making a difference” or delivering “positive outcomes”, they have exhausted the list of useful things to do.

Such is life at the ACT Human Rights Commission, where a fall in the number of complaints for discrimination suggests that the national capital is, after all, a reasonably civilised jurisdiction.

For Human Rights & Discrimination Commissioner Helen Watchirs, however, it is a sign that the grievance-mongering body needs to be more “visible”.

“Proactive work” is required, she says, to “increase awareness of discrimination issues”.

Health Services Commissioner Mary Durkin should tell Watchirs about the downside of visibility. Durkin is struggling to deal with a 60 per cent increase in complaints and notes that “the visibility of the role of the commissioner is an ongoing problem”.

Indeed, Durkin has been forced to adopt an “increased workload mitigation strategy”, shunting off complaints to hospitals and other government agencies, a strategy once known as buck-passing but now termed “a whole-of-government approach”.

This approach has become a popular way of dealing with thought-bubbles that harden into pointless policy such as the commonwealth government’s Agency Multicultural Plan. Friendless, motherless and nebulous, it languishes in trays until it is adopted by a committee such as the Multicultural Access and Equity Working Group, which comes up with 45 “action items” before it runs out of puff. Finally, in a show of defeat, it invites commonwealth public servants to “reflect on areas for improvement”.

The benchmarking craze was once thought to provide a way of measuring public service efficiency but bureaucrats responded by marking their benches low and indistinctly.

Health secretary Jane Halton assesses her department’s performance last year in five well-chosen words: “We are making a difference.” Let us hope so, since the department administers more than $50bn of public funds a year.

South Australian bureaucracies opt for “sending a clear message”. SA Health banned smoking in hospitals to “provide a clear message to the community”. The message, reassuringly, is that SA Health is “committed to reducing the harm caused by tobacco smoking”. The SA government has tripled fines for offensive drunks “to send a clear message that abusing alcohol will not be tolerated”, Deputy Premier John Rau says.

The SA Police Crime Prevention Co-ordination Unit is encouraging vehicle owners “to send a clear message to opportunistic thieves by affixing a distinctive ‘Hands Off’ sticker to their car”. Should that fail to do the trick, the crime prevention gurus may be obliged to find a message that provides “greater clarity”.

The SA government wants a voluntary industry code to “provide greater clarity on what is a free-range egg”.

The statutory task of the National Capital Authority is to foster “an awareness of Canberra as the national capital” but a recent federal government report suggested that “greater clarity” was needed as to what this means.

It may or may not require “a proactive program”, such as the one introduced in the SA town of Gawler, which now has a “proactive program for reducing graffiti vandalism”.

Unlike a reactive graffiti reduction program, proactivity does not require the use of mop, bucket or solvents. Instead, it goes to the heart of the problem and seeks to “address deficiencies in youth decision-making capacity” and “provide an increased profile of aerosol art in public spaces”.

The District Council of Yankalilla, on the other hand, prefers the “targeted approach”. It recently secured a $18,700 grant from the state government for a “community art and respect” project.

In less enlightened times, kids who drew on walls that did not belong to them could expect a clip around the ear. Today they get “positively structured recreational and informal training activities”, or “surfing lessons” as we used to call them, organised by Surfing SA with a state government grant.

When applying for a grant for either a proactive or targeted approach, it is important to remember that graffiti artists should never be described as antisocial vandals. They are stakeholders who, through no fault of their own, have become disconnected from their community.

Kids no longer wag school; they are stakeholders who have been educationally excluded.

Modern bureaucracies, like vampire-phobic Transylvanian villages, need stakeholder engagement policies. The Victorian Department of Education provides a helpful document to explain how its stakeholder engagement strategy works.

It serves to “communicate the department’s commitment to stakeholder engagement to its stakeholders” and “represents the department’s ongoing commitment to work with stakeholders”.

It suggests a different approach to that adopted by military surgeons in Serbia in the early 18th century who recorded the treatment given to a blood-sucking corpse in Visum et Repertum: “Since they saw from this he was a true vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom.”

Reassuringly, the department tells us it will “learn from past stakeholder engagement experiences”.