Rantings of a sub-editor

November 18, 2010

The Civil Service Style Guide

Filed under: Civil Service Style Guide,style guides — substuff @ 5:05 pm
Tags: ,

From my source deep within Whitehall (oh okay, so it’s also on the internet), I am delighted to bring you The Civil Service Style Guide. Here are a few highlights…

A few thoughts …
Thank you for showing me this piece of work. It is utter rubbish for the following reasons.

As appropriate (as in “please deal with this as you consider appropriate”)
You may bin this, but don’t blame me if you are found out.

Blind Copy
None of the official recipients know that you have a copy of this sensitive note, therefore you cannot possibly contribute. But see “For Information“ – you’ll be blamed when it all goes wrong.

CC-ing (as in “can you cc me into that”)
Copy lists can be used in a number of subtle ways. Senior staff can ask to be added to a cc list to ensures that a junior person does not receive full credit for an idea, as it will then look like their idea. Or junior staff can add senior colleagues as a way of ensuring that they are blamed for a very stupid idea.

To cc
To prevent free thought and original ideas from junior members of staff.

Plain English (my personal favourite)
Words of one syllable, with subtitles for the hard of hearing. Civil servants do not use Plain English. It is for civilians and half-wits.

If you want more, it’s here.

That’s not all, though! There’s also an advanced writing guide. Here’s one lesson from it… hope it makes you giggle as much as it did me.

Lesson 8 – The text

Let’s start with three basic Civil Service rules

Rule 1: The more words the better

Rule 2: Writing it down is as good as making it happen, if not better

Rule 3: Anything remotely connected to the subject matter has to be mentioned to show how “joined up” (coagulated) we are.

Doing a first draft is fairly easy. From that stage it’s a long process of seeking comments and contributions. Contributors fall into various categories.

(a) The stars

Before the moans, some recognition of the stars who tirelessly read successive drafts and provide crisp, relevant drafting suggestions. Then they patiently repeat them when the author has inadvertently deleted them. Again and again. These are the unsung heroes of Government documents.

(b) The sentence extenders

“You could take my point on board by adding the following (97 words) to sentence x”. Or “If you are mentioning x and y you really need to mention z too”.

If Harry Potter were written in this style it would go something like this:

Harry, along with other key stakeholders such as English Partnerships, the RDAs and Gandalf, and in the light of a wide-ranging consultation exercise, thought that, subject to appropriate consideration of the options, he would head, in an integrated and holistic way, respecting the four key principles of public service reform, for the cottage built on greenfield land situated close to major transport infrastructure interchanges by the end of April 2004.

(c) The highlighters

These people normally come from other government departments and wear fluorescent yellow coats. They put their Ministers up to writing letters saying that the document should “highlight” x, y and z, promising that officials can follow up with textual suggestions. These officials normally fall into category (b) above.

(d) The More-ons

These people phone up asking that the document say “more-on” this and “more-on” that. The purpose of saying more is rarely clear (except as an application of the general rule that more words equals better). So “more-on” crime could read: “The government is determined to stamp out crime, which is a very bad thing (“more, more!) and we’re joining up with lots of people to stamp out crime (more, more!) and we’re working, yes,

across government

! (more, more!) oh and with lots of stakeholders too (more, more!) including the police (can’t you mention any more?) OK, and Darth Vader, Superman and the Social Exclusion Unit…

(e) Clear and strong people

“We think the document should make a clear and strong statement on x/y/z”.

(f) The positively incomprehensible

“We welcome the cross-references in Chapter 1 to existing documents including A Better Quality of Life (the UK’s sustainable development strategy). However, we still need to ensure that action is clearly targeted so as to support the UK’s national and regional sustainable development targets. These targets, and the definition of sustainable communities, should cascade into the regional daughter documents.”

(g) The hyped-up ideas-mongers

These are the people who, in wondering how to improve the quality of construction, come up with a string of original ideas, e.g. a better building task force leading to a better building plan, led by a better building unit reporting to Departmental better building champions who will ensure that all policies are better building-proofed, and that there should be a better building kite-mark.



  1. This is clearly a fake – there’s not nearly enough Capital Letters.

    Comment by Jo Wadsworth — November 18, 2010 @ 5:20 pm | Reply

  2. I knew my company was still the Public Service – even thirteen years following privatisation.

    Comment by franksting — November 25, 2010 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

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