20 July 2006

In search of excellent English

The State Services Commission has recently released a State of the Development Goals Report 2006. The purpose of these goals is to help lift the performance of the state services so that they deliver better results for government and for New Zealanders. For example, they aim to improve co-ordination across services, and to make them more accessible – all of which I’m sure is a good thing. And worth having a look at.

Forgive me if I get on a hobby-horse here, but the one thing that I do not like about this (and many similar governmental policy documents) is the misuse of the English language. So, for example, the document tells us that state services will have ‘a strong commitment to constant learning in pursuit of excellence’ (p. 9) – a cliché inspired by the 1982 text ‘In search of excellence’ by Peters and Waterman. As a public servant, if you are one, you will be ‘committed to delivering excellence’ (p. 11), in case you needed to know that. This reminds me of the perpetual misuse of ‘excellence’ in educational institutions and their related policy documents, such as the Tertiary Education Commission’s 2002 report on the Performance-Based Research Fund, aka Investing in Excellence.

Now, what does it mean ‘to excel’? It means to surpass others, to be superior or outstanding.

So, by definition, only a few can perform ‘excellently’ at any one task – or, alternatively, most people can excel at only a very few things, and probably not all of the time. The trouble is that, nowadays, every government department, every university, every hospital is required to be excellent – all of the time – as a matter of policy. So, either we are to achieve the statistically impossible feat of all being well above average, all at once; or, the word 'excellence' no longer means what the dictionary says it means, but instead now means merely ‘good enough, on average’, or perhaps just ‘mediocre’. What do you think?


At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree! But what's the alternative ... "we will strive to achieve a reasonable standard, where-ever possible, but only to the standard achievable by the person delivering it"??? I guess it comes down to writing policy documents which look good to the public ... and which gets votes! Maybe that is why, we as members of the public, feel strongly disappointed when things go wrong. Our expectations have been raised to expect "excellence" ... so its no wonder we are disappointed when in reality this is difficult to achieve.

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Grant said...

An alternative is to set goals that are ambitious, and yet operationally specific and measurable. Terms like 'quality' and 'excellence' do not meet that criterion. I agree that public expectations of government services may have become over-inflated, but then all international surveys show that this is a relatively well-governed society. NZ actually does excel!


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