BRAVE / CHALLENGING? Public sector idioms and euphemisms translated

Often when I meet public sector people I’ll ask them how they are faring.
‘Busy,’ often they’ll say.
And how are things?, I’ll ask.
‘Challenging,’ they’ll often reply.
Language is a wonderful thing.
What they really mean is that things are really awful.
That’s intrigued me and I asked the question of the Public Sector Comms Headspace group I asked for examples.

Language can stop you from getting shot

In the Second World War, British and Americans soldiers when they first fought alongside each other had a spot of bother over language.
Of course, by ‘spot of bother’ I mean ‘world of pain.’
Under-fire British radio’d nearby American colleagues to ask for help by saying they were having a ‘spot of bother’ and ‘it would be awfully decent if they popped over and helped out if they weren’t too busy.’
What was actually happening was the Brits were undergoing a surprise attack by a force three times their size. Fifty were killed and the remaining  200 only just escaped with their lives.
The Americans didn’t understand the euphemism that the British used.
A euphemism is a word or phrase used to avoid saying an unpleasant or offensive word.
If ever you’ve worked in the public sector you’ll have come across a euphemism.
You may even have found it challenging (see! a euphemism!)
On the one hand, it’s really strange that communicators must navigate a landscape where communicating is being done by nods and winks of coded language.
On the other hand, the public sector is the spiritual home of senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby whose greeting to the most bizarre of ministerial edicts was the words: “Is that wise, Minister?”
So, here is a list of euphemisms and their translations pulled together with the help of members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group.

Public sector euphemisms translated

The big picture

Challenging (adj.) The most common of euphemisms. It can be attached to a variety of scenarios. It means a bad situation. For example: ‘The 50 per cent budget cut is challenging.’
Courageous (adj). Added as an extra layer of adjective to situations that are frankly suicidal. So, the re-organisation that sees three doing the work of 12 is very courageous.

Sacking people and cuts

Re-organisation (noun). We don’t like to talk about the fact that people are going to lose their jobs so we won’t actually talk about that at all. For example: ‘We had a re-organisation and we lost three members of the team.’ No you didn’t. You dismissed three members of the team. 
Challenging re-organisation (adj). The cuts they were made were a giant shit storm.
Very challenging re-oranisation (adj). The cuts were made were a giant shit storm and the people doing it didn’t know what they were doing.
Redeployment (noun). Once you’ve gone through the re-organisation we’d like to offer you something else in the organisation but we know the idea of being a receptionist will make you leave.
Efficiency (adj). Since the banking crisis money has been cut from the public sector on an unprecedented scale. However, those making the decision much prefer the euphemism of ‘efficiency’. Which is actually a bit self-defeating. It taps into the idea that the public sector is a bloated club that wastes money like water.
Economies (adj). See ‘efficiency.’ this just every reorganisation.
More for less (adj). You’ve got the same budget and you’ve just had a very challenging re-organisation but we think that you’ll do even more with six than you did with 12.

Just do it

We are where we are (adj). No progress has been made but I’m not going to take action or look at the cause of this monumental screw-up.

It is what it is (adj). See ‘We are where we are’.

Challenging times (adj). An absolute shit show of a time period. The Somme was ‘challenging times’.

Interesting times (adj). Giant shit storm. From the Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’

Demanding (adj). Impossible. 

The work place

A hot desk (noun). We’ve made efficiencies and had a re-organisation and now we don’t have enough tables and chairs. We’ve offered you yoga once a month but we know you’re too busy to turn up to it.

Paperless office (adj). We’ve got rid of the printer and we work with tablets that can’t download apps and we now have to go to Prontaprint where its twice as expensive to print stuff.

Agile work space. You need to be a lithe agile gymnast to get a space to work. Related to hot desk – but the whole building.

Work requests

Can you comms it up? (adj). I don’t know what you do but do something. When it goes wrong that’ll be your fault. Closely related to ‘weave your magic’, ‘sprinkle your fairy dust,’ ‘do some comms’ and other vague requests.

I’d like a QR code (phrase). I’d like to appear cutting edge but I’m not.

Make a pragmatic compromise (adj). Give the service what they’re asking for even though it’s probably not the right thing.

It’s an omnishambles (adj). You’ve totally fucked up, haven’t you?

Just do it

It’s a transition (adj). It’s not working yet, but you’ll have to use it anyway.
Lay out the options in a detailed business case (idiom). You know what we’re going to do. I know what we’re going to do. But why don’t you go away and waste some time and trees.

I hear what you’re saying (idiom). I’m ignoring what you’re saying.

Fast-paced environment where no two days are the same (idiom). Absolute chaos with a to-do list nine miles long.

We’re looking for someone who is good at managing change (idiom). There’s been or will be a challenging restructure.

Leveling up the country (idiom). We forgot anywhere exists outside London and have vastly underfunded anywhere else for decades. Here, have a couple of grand and some empty promises. 

Consultation (verb). We may or may not be listening to what the people most affected by this want. Related to: ‘Can you do some consultation but not too much’ and ‘I’ve just been consulted at.’

Digital by default (idiom). We have a webform and a corporate Twitter.

Smarter working (idiom). We’re giving you already out-of-date laptops, hot desks and red paint on one wall. 

Keep a watching brief (idiom). I’m doing literally nothing.

I need your input (idiom). I have passed this from my to do list to yours.

A soft launch (adjective). We’ll do it but I don’t want too much come back on me.

Open and transparent (adjective). Translation: Can you put this consultation out? It closes next week.

Open brief (idiom). We’ve not decided what the brief is.

You’ve got to pick your battles (idiom). Fundamentally, leadership don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks.

It would be helpful if you would just (idiom). Just do it.

When you’ve got a minute (idiom). Just do it.

You need to be more solutions focused (idiom). Just do it.

Have you got five minutes? (idiom) I’m taking an hour of your time if you’re lucky.

I have concerns (idiom). I think this is shit.

I share your concerns (idiom). I agree. I think this is shit.

I’ve cc’d Dave so he is aware of our concerns (idiom). I think this is shit and I’ve just thrown you under a bus by telling Dave.

It was disappointing (idiom). I’m livid.

We see this as a comms issue (idiom). We’re too busy.

Thanks to contributers Andy Mabbettm Louise Reeve, Rah James, Josie Rylands, Rebekah Dade Duffin, Patrick Fletcher, Sarah Lay, Kaylee Godfrey, Stephen O’Hanlon, Paul Darigan, David Grindlay, Suzie Evans, Hazel Parsons, Michalle Welsby, Steven Welsby, Emma Raczka, Jo Walters, Ed Thake-Adams, Jon Phillips, Adrian Osborne, Neil Gibson, Ben Falconer, Marianne Marshall, Joe Robinson, Alastair Smith, Vikkie Page, Sarah HamiltonDavid Crosby, Cornelius Alexander, Ben Solly, Eimear Fitzpatrick, Lynette Lee, George Barbour, James MortonKeziah Leary, Jane Woodall, Martin Rollins, Zoe Hebden, Charlote Pearce, Emma Louise, Vicky Croghan, Karen Rowley, Suzanna Arnold-Fry, Alex Duffy, Neil Gibson, Pauline Roche, Josephine Graham, Alison Donovan, Jane Harris, Kim McGreal and Kelly Harrison.

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  1. Missing Suboptimal – so far below shitstorm that even the amoeba are laughing.
    And: ‘Long term sick leave’ – so stressed and knackered by it all, that they are sadly too ill now to even the leave the house. (not so funny, but very very true).

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