A while ago I had the joy of talking to another guest at a birthday party and finding out that both of us were working in stakeholder engagement. The relief was mutual: for once it was not required to go through a long and potentially dull explanation of the kind of work we did, facing a blank gaze followed by a comment like "that's really interesting - do you have any pets?" Now I would never say that public and stakeholder engagement are not exciting; the fact of the matter is that the words we use to describe our work are not exactly, ehm, engaging.
The Local Government Association seems to share that view. Their recently composed list of banned jargon for local councils includes just about every single word that relates to stakeholder engagement. Oops, there you go, I just used two of the banned words. Other forbidden words include 'dialogue' and 'facilitate'; we should also abstain from calling any process 'participatory'. The chairman of the association, Margaret Eaton, was quoted in an article on the BBC website: "Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just 'talk to people' instead?"
Now I did not know what coterminous meant, but I do know that stakeholder engagement, the way we tend to use it, does not just mean 'talking to people'. I would rather reword it as 'working with people who have an interest in an issue', even though I realise very well that this would still be incomplete. My point is: jargon generally exists for a reason, allowing effective communication between people within a discipline. Of course the paradox this creates in the field of public engagement is that while practitioners use 'technical jargon' we also spend considerable time and effort convincing clients that they must talk and write in ways that non-experts understand so that they can participate. And this is the point, technical jargon and plain English are different things. We would not expect doctors to talk to each other about their patient's condition in simple language, they need to use precise, technical terms in order to be clear to each other. When they talk to lay people we expect them to talk to us in ways we understand.
Having said this, a particular problem we have in this field is that technical jargon is not used consistently amongst the professionals. Let's take a side-step to the ScienceWise workshop just a couple of weeks ago, where our discussions with participants - mostly long-time engagement professionals - unveiled huge amounts of language confusion. The session was about the findings from our research into up-scaling engagement and right from the beginning, talks were about how 'engagement' is different from 'dialogue' or 'consultation'. Nearly everyone did agree that they were different, but all seemed to have their own understanding as to how they were different. Quite alarming: not only do we lack a jargon-proof professional language; the jargon we have can make our lives harder instead of easier.
We - and I mean all those for whom involving people in decision-making processes is part of their job - may have to make an effort to facilitate communication about engagement, excuse me, I meant to say that we should make it easier to talk about what we do. I guess it is fair to wonder how the people that we usually refer to as 'stakeholders' can be protected from the linguistic confusion that seems to be innate to our discipline. And, indeed, how we can progress the field without clarity between ourselves?
The last thing we should be doing, of course, is to start inventing new words or adopting fancy sounding words that we can redefine so that they become relevant to our practice. Instead, I propose, let's try and restrict the use of the words we love so much. In many instances there really is no need to call participants 'stakeholders'; why not call them what they are: local residents, doctors and nurses, or people? And how often must we really call an event or a process 'deliberative'? We may as well save that word for processes that go beyond discussion, debate and polling. Of course this is not the solution to all our language problems. Nevertheless, there are some possible advantages. Firstly, if many of us get used to speaking in words that make sense in any context, others such as clients and participants would need less of an effort to grasp what we mean. Secondly, our jargon words would be more meaningful when used, as we have become accustomed to only using them when they cannot be avoided. Thirdly, and most importantly, it may help me explain my work at birthday parties without discouraging my audience.
Remco van der Stoep
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