Hot! Acronyms reduce citizens to baffled bystanders

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Jul 05 2011.   By Carol Goar Editorial Board

If you’ve ever wondered how it would feel to be in a place where no one spoke your language or cared if you were shut out of the conversation, drop in on almost any social policy conference.

The participants speak in sentences loaded with acronyms — strings of letters that stand for government departments, policies and programs. They understand each other, but the average citizen would have no way of knowing what they were talking about. Those who actually use the programs would be flummoxed.

Acronyms prevent people from understanding public issues. They obstruct informed debate. They exclude most of the population from significant conversations. And they drive journalists crazy. I don’t know how many times I’ve said to a bureaucrat or policy expert: “Could you put that in plain English, please?”

Not long ago, Sherri Torjman and Ken Battle of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy were attending a conference on income security in Toronto. Here is one of their observations: “Both speakers were in complete agreement that the WITB that resulted from the MISWAA process was a positive development. Though different in design from the CCTB and the NCBS, it would dovetail well with these measures.”

Here is a rough translation. The two speakers agreed that the efforts of a Toronto group lobbying for reform of adult social benefits (MISWAA: Modernizing Income Security for Working-Age Adults) laid the groundwork for a new tax break (WITB: Working Income Tax Benefit) for low-income workers. This measure, though not what social activists advocated, would complement two existing measures; the CCTB (Canada Child Tax Benefit) and the NCBS (National Child Benefit Supplement).

They could have said this in comprehensible language. They just didn’t bother.

During the presentation, Torjman and Battle glanced at their fellow delegates. A few were nodding in agreement; others had nodded off. Some were trying desperately to feel part of the discussion. One got up angrily and whispered audibly that there ought to be an “acronym alert.”

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with acronyms. Almost all workplaces have them. Many voluntary organizations — from churches to sports leagues — use them. Cellphone text messages use a form of acronyms.

Most people have the courtesy to use them where they belong. Bureaucrats, for some reason, don’t. They assume it is incumbent on everybody else to learn their acronyms and keep track of them all. No matter how often they’re asked to communicate clearly, they quickly lapse into language only insiders, academics and seasoned activists understand.

Torjman and Battle offer no solution to this blight. They merely urge groups and organizations working the social policy field to use full words, not acronyms.

But someone has to provide leadership. Ideally, it would come from the cabinet ministers responsible for government departments and agencies. They could make clear public employees are expected to serve Canadians, not confuse and anger them. Failing that, taxpayers could demand public information in language they can understand. Or civil servants could exercise some self-discipline.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence any of that is going to happen. So here is a list of common social policy acronyms:

ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program)

OLAP (Ontario Legal Aid Program)

OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program)

ODB (Ontario Drug Benefit)

EI or UI (Employment Insurance)

MCSS (Ministry of Community and Social Services)

MOHLT (Ministry of Health and Long-term Care)

CCTB (Canada Child Tax Benefit)

NCBS (National Child Benefit Supplement)

CPP (Canada Pension Plan)

OAS (Old Age Security)

GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement)

CESG (Canada Education Savings Grant)

HRSDC (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada)

CDB (Child Disability Benefit)

WITB (Working Income Tax Benefit)

WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board)

You shouldn’t need a code-buster in your own province. Every vote-seeking politician who knocks on your door ought to hear that.

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