Civil servants 'should reflect on use of Whitehall-ese', Case tells Covid Inquiry

Inquiry chair Heather Hallett challenges Case on whether jargon "obscures communication"
Simon Case at the Covid Inquiry this morning. Screengrab: Covid Inquiry

Civil service leaders should reflect on the dangers of using “Whitehall-ese”, Simon Case has said.

Appearing before the Covid Inquiry this morning, the cabinet secretary was taken to task by inquiry chair Dame Heather Hallett over the lack of “plain English” in documents about arrangements for clinically vulnerable people in the early months of the pandemic.

She said “Whitehall-ese” – a term Case used to apologise for his own use of civil service jargon during the evidence session – “obscures communication”.

As the inquiry examined a document outlining support for clinically vulnerable people, Hallet said: “I don't understand it because of the use of Whitehall-ese.”

The document highlighted challenges in cross-government working – which Case said had contributed to the decision to set up the Covid Task Force in the late summer of 2020 to coordinate decision-making centrally. Earlier in the session, Case had said he could not “give a clear answer” on why the taskforce had not been set up earlier.

With the document displayed on a screen at the inquiry, Hallett told Case: “I wonder if the use of that language obscures your message and therefore people who would have to take the decision to put in place a taskforce are not getting the impact of the message, because it's got these silly expressions.”

“You're absolutely right and probably something that we should reflect more on is whether the institutional language takes away the humanity,” Case responded.

“Each profession ends up, as part of its own anthropology, developing its own language and ways of working,” he said.

“Sometimes they do exactly what you say –  I think lots of us who are civilians who spent a lot of our careers working with colleagues in the military look at the military language and say, ‘Well, what on earth, you know, why don't you just say that you’re, you know, dropping a bomb or something? Why are we talking about effect, what does that mean?’”

In response, Hallett said: “I don’t think it’s just the lack of humanity. I think it obscures the message. And if you're trying to get a message across to decision makers who are the politicians, don't you have to have a clarity of message?”

Case replied: “Certainly many politicians are in the same place as you, m’lady, of complaining about: ‘Could you just tell me what you mean?’”

Moments earlier, Case had congratulated inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC for his ability to “translate” civil service jargon.

Examining a document on services for clinically vulnerable people who were shielding, Keith highlighted a sentence on “barriers to progress” that said: “Decisions are not aligned where there are interdependencies across departments.”

He asked Case: “Is that a way of saying that central government departments were just not speaking sufficiently to each other – and there was no body in place to bring together the administrators and officials to talk about the reality of what needed to be done?”

“Yes, your ability to translate ‘Whitehall speak’ is very good,” Case said.

The inquiry continues.

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