By Tony Collins
Orwell made no mention of goodnewspeak. But maybe today it’s an increasingly popular descendant of Newspeak – a language devised by Orwell to show how the State could use words and phrases to limit thought.
This week, as a statue of Orwell was unveiled outside the BBC, a local council in Sussex made an announcement that was a fine example of goodnewspeak.
This was Horsham District Council’s way of not saying that it was scrapping weekly rubbish collections.
This was the benign side of goodnewspeak. The dark side is a growing acceptance in Whitehall, local authorities and the wider public sector that nothing negative can be thought of let alone expressed at work.
This suppression of negative thoughts means that the rollout of Universal Credit can be said officially to be going well and can be speeded up despite the clamour from outsiders, including a former Prime Minister (John Major), for a rethink to consider the problems and delays.
[Labour MP Frank Field said last month that the DWP was withholding bad news on Universal Credit.]
It means that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy can continue to praise all aspects of its smart meters rollout while its officials keep silent on the fact that the obsolescent smart meters now being installed do not work properly when the householder switches supplier.
It means that council employees can think only good about their major IT suppliers – and trust them with the council’s finances as at Barnet council.
[Nobody at Barnet council has pointed out the potential for a conflict of interest in having outsourcing supplier Capita reporting on the council’s finances while having a financial interest in those finances. It took a local blogger Mr Reasonable to make the point.]
Goodnewspeak can also mean that public servants do their best, within the law, to avoid outside scrutiny that could otherwise lead to criticism, as at Lambeth council.
Last month Private Eye reported the results of a “People’s Audit” in which local residents asked questions and scrutinised the authority’s accounts. The audit found that:
– The number of managers earning between £50,000 and £150,000 has increased by 88, at a cost of more than £5.5m year.
-Spending on Lambeth’s new town hall has gone from a projected £50m to £140m.
– The council “invested” a total of £57,000 on its public libraries last year – closing three of them – while spending £13m on corporate office accommodation.
-£10.3m was spent making people redundant.
These disclosures (and there are many more of them) raise the question of what Lambeth is doing to dispel the impression that it manages public money badly and that its decisions could be routine in the world of local authorities.
Lambeth council’s reaction to the audit was to denounce it and issue its own goodnewspeak statement; and it is considering a proposal to lobby the government to allow councils to ban such People’s Audits in future.
Lambeth’s website, incidentally, is entitled “Love Lambeth”. Which, perhaps, shows that its leaders have, at least, a deep sense of irony.
The following lists of announcements on the websites of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Transport are examples of how goodnewspeak manifests itself in Whitehall:
And the Department of Transport’s website:
Ministry of Truth
Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four of the Ministry of Truth whose expertise was lying, the Ministry of Peace which organised wars and the Ministry of Plenty which rationed food.
Some of the Party’s slogans were:
War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.
And Orwell, whose wife worked at the Ministry of Information at Senate House, London (Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth) said,
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
Of course goodnewspeak doesn’t exist as a policy anywhere. But its practice is all-pervasive in the public sector. And it seems to change the way people think when they’re at work.
It blocks out any view other than the official line.
In Nineteen Eight-four, Orwell created “Newspeak” as a language of the Party to coerce the public to shape their thoughts around the State’s beliefs. Its much-reduced vocabulary stopped people conceiving of any other point of view.
Not using Newspeak was a thoughtcrime. The Party advocated Duckspeak – to speak without thinking – literally quack like a duck.
Has this already happened in a minor way at Barnet? A council document on the benefits of its outsourcing policies was peppered with abstractions that could have been constructed by software-driven random-phrase generators:
“Ahead of the game”
“Top to bottom organisational restructure”
“Flexibility to meet future challenges whilst ensuring we provide excellent services to residents today.”
“Root of our success”
“New solutions to complex problems”
“Investing for the future”
“Protect what makes Barnet such a great place to live”
“Increasing resident satisfaction”
“Prepared for the future”
“A radical, ‘whole place’ approach to designing and providing services”
“We have not been backwards in coming forwards”
“Pursuing alternatives to the norm”
“Vision into reality”
“Frame our future strategic direction”
“Drivers for change”
“Genuine innovation in Local Government”
“Bold in its decision making”
“Forward looking change strategy”
“A new relationship with citizens”
“A one public sector approach”
“A relentless drive for efficiency”
“Focus on stimulating the market”
“Best in class’ range of tradable services to win and deliver work for other authorities.”
‘Form follows function’.
“Clear roles and responsibilities”
“An internal escalation model”
“Renewed focus on improving engagement”
“Increasing transparency, and developing trust”
“Connect with people and build relationships of trust”
“A steep demand line to climb”
One worrying consequence is that Whitehall civil servants and public servants and ruling councillors at, say Barnet and Somerset councils (and even at Cornwall), made the assumption that their IT suppliers shared the public sector’s goodnewspeak philosophy.
But suppliers are commercially savvy. They don’t exist purely to serve the public. They have to make a profit or they risk insolvency.
For years, goodnewspeak at Somerset County Council led to officers and councillors regularly praising the successes of a joint venture with IBM while covering up the problems and losses, in part by routine refusals of FOI requests.
Goodnewspeak at Liverpool Council meant that its officials had nothing but praise for BT when they ended a joint venture in 2015. They said that ending the joint venture would save £30m. But the joint venture itself was supposed to have saved tens of millions.
Somerset County Council made a similar good news announcement when it terminated its joint venture Southwest One with IBM.
Such announcements are consistent with Newspeak’s “Doublethink” – the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.
Outsiders can find goodnewspeak shocking. The Daily Mirror reported on how the DWP celebrated the rollout of Universal Credit at Hove, Sussex, with a cake. Were managers mindful of the fact that some failed UC claimants have been driven to the brink of suicide?
Francis Maude, when minister for the Cabinet Office, was almost universally disliked in the civil service. He was an outsider who did not accept the Whitehall culture. Even though he believed the UK had the best civil service in the world, he did not always show it.
He tried to reduce Whitehall spending on IT projects and programmes that could not be justified. He spoke an IT supplier oligopoly.
Now he has left government, most of his civil service reforms (apart from the Government Digital Service) have settled back to how they were before he arrived in 2010.
In a speech last month, Maude spoke of a “distressing” disillusionment with the civil service culture. He said:
“Based on my experience as a Minister in the eighties and early nineties my expectations (of the civil service) were high. And the disillusionment was steep and distressing.
“It remains my view that we have some of the very best civil servants in the world … But the Civil Service as an institution is deeply flawed, and in urgent need of radical reform.
” And it is civil servants themselves, especially the younger ones, who are most frustrated by the Service and its culture and practices.”
World’s best civil service
He added that, as the new minister responsible for the civil service, every draft speech or article presented to him started: ‘The British Civil Service is the best in the world.’
But complaints by ministers in all parties about the lack of institutional capability, inefficiency and failed implementation were legion, he said.
“When we queried the evidential basis for this assertion, it turned out that the only relevant assessment was a World Bank ranking for ‘government effectiveness’, in which the UK ranked number 16.”
Speaking the unsaid
Perhaps more than any former minister, Maude has expertly summarised the civil service culture but in a way that suggests it’s unredeemable.
“I and others have observed that all too often the first reaction of the Civil Service when something wrong is discovered is either to cover it up or to find a scapegoat, often someone who is not a career civil servant and who is considered dispensable.
“There seems to be an absolute determination to avoid any evidence that the permanent Civil Service is capable of failure.
“Another indicator is that if a Minister decides that a Civil Service leader is not equipped for his or her task, this has to be dressed up as “a breakdown in the relationship”, with the unspoken suggestion that this is at least as much the fault of the Minister as of the civil servant.
“It can never be admitted that the mandarin was inadequate in any way.
“When I suggested that there might be room for improvement, the distinguished former Civil Service Head, Lord Butler, accused me of a failure of leadership. Actually the leadership failure is to pretend that all is well when no one, even civil servants themselves, really believes that.
The good news
All is not lost – thanks to a vibrant and investigative local press in some areas and resident auditors such as Mr Reasonable, Mrs Angry, David Orr, Andrew Rowson and the people’s auditors in Lambeth.
Along with the National Audit Office and some MPs, these resident auditors are the only effective check on goodnewspeak. They are reminder to complacent officialdom that it cannot always hide behind its barrier of unaccountability.
Long may these dogged protectors of the public interest continue to highlight financial mismanagement, excess and self-indulgent,wasteful decisions.
Earlier this year Nineteen Eight-Four hit the No 1 spot in Amazon’s book sales chart.
Perhaps copies were being scooped up by shortlisted candidates for top public sector jobs as vital homework before falling in with the culture at their interviews.
Outside the BBC, Orwell’s new statute is inscribed with a quotation from a proposed preface to Animal Farm that was never used:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Thank you for David Orr, one of the dogged local resident auditors referred to above, for drawing my attention to some of the articles mentioned in this post.
Whitewashing history in education
I thank you again, Tony, for this post.
George Orwell is a hero.
What I have difficulty in understanding is that, our Civil Servants, the best in the world (unfortunately, they are the best in their world – not ours) are highly educated people. They will have studied and had explained to them, the best philosophies from the world’s elite thought leaders throughout history. So, how is it that they have adopted the self-protecting behaviours of three-year-olds?
They seem to have adopted a mono-cultured, tunnel-visioned, O.C.D. approach to addressing problems, i.e., they choose not to address problems, thus ensuring problems are perennial. The long-term, end result of this will be catastrophic.
When stressed, the thinking, problem-solving, part of the brain closes down to leave the more primitive fight, flight or frozen to deal with the situation. So, our institutions are either perpetually stressed or, exist within their own protective bubble where they can choose the most primitive and non-intellectual path and be rewarded for so doing (inevitable side effect of such a system is corruption).
I am mightily impressed by The People’s Audit. I didn’t know such an entity exists. Hooray! For years, I’ve been suggesting that we all try to take an interest in ‘our institutions.’ They are ‘our institutions’ hence in a democracy it is our duty to take at least some responsibility for them. We are fools to give our power away to strangers.
Btw, with Lambeth Council’s dire history, I’d certainly like to see it being thoroughly investigated (but.by whom?) – it is already signalling its unsuitability for office by its keenness to shut out legitimate inquiries.
The DWP seems to be a shameless shambles. Some recipients of UC were living on the edge. The DWP managed to even take that ‘edge’ away from them leaving them to freefall into the abyss. The chilling fact is that, the elite of the DWP are unlikely to care – those who suffered have little power so are of little interest to politicians.
Lovely that you have identified some upright souls willing to support the good within our institutions and censuring the bad/silly when appropriate. They are our beaming lighthouses – giving hope and guidance to weary travellers.
Long live George Orwell – even though he is dead. I think that is my goodnewspeak.
Very well put. Your comment that the civil service is the best in their world, not ours, is particularly apt, as is your point that a mono-cultured, tunnel-visioned, O.C.D. approach to addressing problems will mean they are not addressed.
The problem is not with the vast majority of civil and public servants, many of whom seem to fully understand but have to accept the public sector culture of a goodnewspeak that allows no negative thoughts or opinions while at work.
The problem, it seems, is with a small number of very senior civil and public servants who set or perpetuate the organisation’s culture. Everyone else in the organisation has to fall in with that culture or quit, be moved or marginalised.
For a TV documentary a few years ago, a camera crew followed a permanent secretary around one of his offices. When a junior member of staff stopped him and raised a problem, the permanent secretary gave him an impatient look that seemed to mix insouciance with a contempt for using a negative tone and language. The complainant was told to raise the matter with his manager.
In such a hierarchical and intellectually suffocating atmosphere – which is, perhaps, summed up by the word goodnewspeak – how can junior and middle management, and particularly those senior executives who join the civil service from the private sector, dare to raise systemic problems of major importance?
Thank you Zara for your comment.
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I’d like to thank you very much for this post, Tony, and add a few thoughts. Unfortunately, am engaged with stuff at the moment but I can thank you and hope to return when I might make a useful comment.
Reblogged this on sdbast.