DIUS promises to ditch the jargon but defends its use of 'customer'

Select committee's attack on chief scientific officer also rebutted, writes Rebecca Attwood

April 9, 2009

The Government's universities department has promised to cut down on its use of jargon after being criticised for its "impenetrable" language by a cross-party committee of MPs - but it has refused to stop describing students and others who use its services as "customers".

In January, a select committee accused the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills of producing badly written documents that were hard to understand.

Last week, the department said it had "taken on board" the comments of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee (IUSS). It said it intended to produce "more concise and more accessible" work in future, "written in plain English".

But DIUS defended its use of the term "customer". MPs had pointed out that the term "our customers" is used 19 times in DIUS' 2008 Departmental Report.

"We believe strongly that we should consider the users of our services as customers, recognising that we are here to best meet their needs rather than deliver simply at our convenience," DIUS said.

The IUSS committee also called on DIUS to "own up" to data errors in tables in its annual report.

In response, DIUS said it had "put in place a number of measures to ensure greater accuracy in our published material".

DIUS also reacted to comments from the IUSS committee on John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), after MPs claimed that he appeared to see his role as "defending government policy" despite scientific evidence.

Professor Beddington was condemned for failing to reject government policy on the use of homoeopathy in the National Health Service, but DIUS said Professor Beddington believed that the committee had "misunderstood" the evidence he presented.

"On homoeopathy, he indicated in his oral evidence that he was aware of no evidence, other than a placebo effect, of the efficacy of homoeopathy," DIUS said. "Subsequent to this he was made aware of material that purported to show that homoeopathy had effects beyond the placebo effect and he felt the committee should be made aware of this. However, he also said that, on examination, he thought this evidence was highly questionable.

"For the avoidance of any doubt, the GCSA believes that there are no credible physiological mechanisms that can be adduced for homoeopathic effect."

DIUS added: "Professor Beddington can and does challenge the Government when it appears to him that scientific evidence may not be playing its full role in policymaking."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

MPS DEMAND PLAIN ENGLISH

The Technology Strategy Board has had its knuckles rapped by MPs for using indecipherable language to describe its work.

Facing the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee last week, TSB members were told to defend their use of phrases such as "challenge-led innovation".

That was no problem for Iain Gray, the TSB chief executive. "Challenge-led innovation is the biggest step forward that we as an organisation have made. It's the market challenge, the social challenge. For me, innovation is about ideas. It's about conversion of ideas into UK economic benefit. Too often it's been technology in search of an application. That's not to say there aren't good blue-skies ideas, but I think we need to have different mechanisms."

Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, chair of the committee, was not impressed. "I have no doubt that you ... know exactly what you're talking about, but we're struggling with it," he said. "And if we're struggling, smaller, individual businesses may also be struggling.

"Could we implore you to have a translator who puts this into ... ordinary speak?"

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

IT'S A CHALLENGE ALL RIGHT: DIUS AIMS 'TO MEET NEEDS'

Examples from the DIUS Departmental Report, 2008

- An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity, such as workforce and technology. The capital investment strategy will continue to renew and modernise further education establishments to create state of the art facilities.

- We are producing Customer Intelligence Packs for each of our major customer groups. This will provide the common foundation for developing the specific insights we will need for each area of policy, service or communications. (We) will build these specific insights in the planning stages of their work, using methods like customer experience or journey mapping.

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