Language, technology and meaning at the Ministry of Justice

In the modern way, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) for England and Wales runs a number of blogs. This is generally a good thing; it allows a personal element to otherwise corporate communication; it means that staff can discuss their work informally to a general public. A recent post on the MOJ digital and technology blog caused, however, a small twitter storm. This was initially ignited by Professor Richard Moorhead (@RichardMoorhead), currently of University College, London. He called it ‘interesting if vague on some critical details’. Others were less polite. This row might be a one off on a rushed post put up by a harassed civil servant just before the Easter holiday weekend. Alternatively, it may ask some rather more fundamental questions of the MOJ. 

The post is entitled ‘Removing unnecessary processes the right way’. It relates to changes to legal aid administration. The author draws three learning points from an episode to which we will return and on which we may make the italicised comment:

Outcomes over solutions We can work with the users of our services to identify their needs and desired outcomes instead of starting off with a proposed solution. Good as far as it goes but close to trite.

Sometimes elements of waterfall delivery work Because we work with a third party development team on one of our systems, requirements were expected upfront. This can be ok if you work in a lean way: answering questions quickly and being able to unblock issues at pace. No idea what this means.

We should simplify and optimise our existing systems and processes before thinking about adding additional complexity
Automating processes or removing them all together was significantly cheaper than using Robotics Process Automation and it fixed the problem instead of covering it up. See above. Sensible but trite.

To get to these conclusions, we have to wade through considerable jargon; remarkably few verifiable facts; and no detail that gives any particularity. Let us list the unexplained cliches – ‘waterfall delivery’, ‘journeys of our users’, ‘doing less but delivering more’; ‘“transformation”’ (interestingly used in quotes), transformation which ‘never really … ends’, ’‘Robotics Process Automation or RPA’, a ‘lean product team of three people’ (why is a team of three necessarily lean?). All of these might be acceptable with definition or explanation but are opaque without. There are just two potentially verifiable facts. A team of once 125 has been shrunk to 75. And the point of the piece – the result of whatever happened was that a casework team saved around 36 hours of day.

But what did the MOJ team actually do? We don’t know. We are, however, told that generally they are pretty happy with what whatever it is and want to give it more publicity: ‘This is something we are proud of and we want to start shouting about our achievements more.’ They clearly took some sort of process – maybe dealing with legal aid applications – and altered what was initially input so that they could replace something complicated at the end. But what?

The frustrating thing is that there could be something really interesting here. We are just not told enough. But, if technology is encouraging administrations to re-engineer their processes from the bottom up, that is significant. That might even be an illustration (if I understand it right) of moving from ‘waterfall’ (if that means dominated by pre-existing work flows) to user journeys, (if that means users’ needs). If so, tell us about it so that we can understand. This blog is not an internal memo to a specialist team. It is part of a conscious communication strategy to inform a wider public.

It is no part of my point to attack a civil servant who knocked up a column and did not get it right. I have been personally responsible for enough pieces that have been dismissed as sub-standard –  in the right mood, that is actually how you learn most. If this piece was about something important, then it would be a good exercise to rewrite it so that we can properly understand. But, if this is indicative of the imprecision of thought within the digital team then there is a more major systemic problem. No doubt we will hear nothing from the MOJ but it would be nice to think that someone, somewhere is grappling with the feedback on this piece. They might bear in mind that one twitter commentator said, ‘I’ve read this twice and I’m still unclear about the product, the problem, the process or the outcome’. And there is a further message for the MOJ. Public writing only appears to float out over an empty void. People actually read what you put out and make a judgement of your competence. Most organisations for which I have worked have required a second reader for any writing that committed the organisation publicly. I commend that practice to the MOJ.

There is plenty of authority on plain English. Mark Twain pointed to the problem of ‘fluff and flowers and verbosity’ creeping into writing: he knew a thing of two about communication. George Orwell’s  Politics and the English Language is still a classic. And, more prosaically, the MOJ might care to remember the government’s own guidance for online content: ‘The main purpose of GOV.UK is to provide information – there’s no excuse for putting unnecessarily complicated writing in the way of people’s understanding.’

Leave a Reply