by Stephen Tall on July 15, 2005
Occasionally you read two things on the same day, and something at the back of your mind nags away until you make the connection. Just this sensation occurred to me when I read the Welcome by the Tory leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Keith Mitchell (practically unrecognisable from his days playing Henry VIII), in the Council’s propaganda sheet, ‘Oxfordshire’ (how long did it take to come up with that title, guys?); and then read ‘An empty language for empty headed executives’ by John Kay, the first director of the Saïd Business School at Oxford, in the Financial Times.
I’ll reproduce a couple of extracts below, and see if your mind also makes a cognitive leap:
When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay, “Politics and the English Language”, in 1946, bullshit was political bullshit. … But the worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus. In the last 12 months, books by Don Watson (Gobbledygook), the Australian writer, Harry Frankfurt (On Bullshit), the Princeton philosopher, and Lucy Kellaway (Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry?), my colleague, have attempted to dissect this phenomenon.
Lies and spin communicate, but what they communicate is false. The defining characteristic of bullshit is that it does not attempt to communicate at all. Bullshit has the vocabulary and syntax of ordinary language, but not the meaning. …
The symptoms of bullshit are familiar. Stock phrases are parroted without thought – change drivers, organisational transformation. Words are given meanings different from their ordinary sense – government spending is called investment. Bullshit creates new words – empowerment, creovation – but these do not define original ideas. They describe concepts too nebulous to be expressed by terms with known meaning. Bullshit is characterised by prolixity – “serving customers better” becomes “striving for continuous improvement in the customer relationship management space”.
Why do people talk or write when they have nothing to say? …So most bullshit is simply to fill space. Sometimes people do not want to speak but are required to. The growing culture of audit and accountability has stimulated such obligatory communication – read any corporate risk assessment or statement of auditors’ responsibilities. Written by word processor, read by nobody, this material is generally innocuous. But the purpose of bullshit is often deceptive. The squirming politician, forbidden to lie but unable to tell the truth, must bullshit.
‘Welcome’ – Keith Mitchell, ‘Oxfordshire’ (Summer 2005).
… The new council has elected me as Leader with Cllr David Robertson as Deputy Leader. There are several new Cabinet posts.
A Cabinet Member for Change Management will work to deliver a strong accountability culture and an improved customer focus throughout the organization. Another, with a portfolio for Policy Co-ordination, will manage the Cabinet’s business, ensuring joined-up governance as well as giving a distinctive flavour to inclusion and equalities policies.
There are new portfolios for Finance, Children and Young People’s Services, School Improvement and Health & Community Services. The new administration is committed to achieving LOW TAXES, REAL CHOICE AND VALUE FOR MONEY. The Cabinet jobs I have described reflect our determination to improve the quality of services, to make the councikl more customer focused and to hold down council tax increases.
For the first time in 20 years, people in Oxfordshire will know precisely who is running the council. We welcome that clarity. We are happy to be accountable for the quality of the council’s services and its community leadership. We will provide clear strategic priorities to our 19,500 staff, negotiating targets and ensuring they are properly resourced and supported. In return, we will hold them to account for improving services…. We are already rated a Good authority; we want to move up to Excellent.
Cllr Mitchell is clearly on a mission to creovate for Oxfordshire. I’m sure I speak for all my co-colleagues in the Lib Dems when I say I anticipate keenly his stepping up to the plate to prove he has the smarts to pro-actively advance our mutual empowerment. We’re smiling at you, Keith.