Basic Mandarin - 4 & 5

Basic Mandarin - Lessons 4 & 5

Lesson 4

Here are a few specialist words and phrases for use when communicating with Ministers’ offices.

A very misleading word as briefs are anything but. Similarly, a …

Line to take …
… is always a paragraph.

Diary Commitments
The Minister is far too important to go to your insignificant little event.

Draft Submission
If circulated by a junior official:- I haven’t a clue what our policy is on this or what you want me to say, so here is a long piece of waffle which you will totally rewrite.

If circulated by a senior official:- Don’t for one minute think that I am open to rewriting any of this.

Entrepreneurial (as in “I want my officials to be more entrepreneurial”)
It does not mean that you should take more risks with public money or Ministers’ reputations. It really means that you should work 12 hours a day to make something happen and get no public credit for doing so.

Ministerial Submission
I know a lot more about this subject than you do, but convention demands that in the interests of public accountability I must write a clever note in which I pretend to seek your views.

The Minister was grateful for your submission which (s)he read without comment
“It definitely went in the red box and it definitely came out again. Did they look at it? Search me squire.” Usually means that the submission was (a) very dull, (b) on an insignificant subject well below the Ministerial radar, or (c) both.

Treat Official
Letters from the public which Ministers delegate to officials for reply. They can generally be left at the bottom of the in-tray until you are really bored one afternoon.

Lesson 5

Finally, a few words and phrases of Mandarin management-speak.

Change Management

Finding ever new ways of saying “Like it or lump it”.


A bunch of randomly selected colourful charts all on one page, giving the appearance of providing complete clarity and direction to a broad and complex policy area, while actually providing no significant value whatsoever. Often a tool to placate and distract senior officials while decisions are being made elsewhere.


I’m not delegating this boring task to you because I can’t be bothered to do it. I am empowering you.


Used to talk up a job that nobody wants to do: “This is an exciting chance for an enthusiastic and driven individual to intentionally poke a hornet’s nest and run away screaming.”

Information Management

Posh term for “filing”


Holiday. Its use perpetuates the fiction that your bosses rather than your kids’ school decide whether/when you will take your holidays.


A form of signage still used in the civil service although they ceased to be fashionable on highways about 150 years ago. Sometimes imply strenuous exertions as in “deliver milestones”.

Plain English

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.


… as in “first email secures place in discussion forum”. An attempt to give the impression that an unattractive event will in fact be a sell out.


The goal of all civil servants is to be considered “sound”. It means you are loyal, trustworthy and would jump under a bus if asked to do so by a senior official.


The careful thinking that we wish we had done two years ago but don't have time to do today

Stretch Target

A target which is impossible to meet.

Work - Life Balance

I’m off early as I am the boss even though there is a big “issue“ developing. You will stay here work late as you are not senior enough to enjoy a work-life balance. Also used by senior managers (especially in the Cabinet Office) as a way of sounding PC and employee friendly rather than improving staff’s miserly salary.

Finally, I am grateful to Mark Davies for documenting the evolution of the language used in the disciplinary process. Once upon a time, a manager would talk to staff if he or she perceived that there was a 'problem' with their colleague's performance or behaviour. This straightforward word eventually gave way to ...


Martin Stanley

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