This article was originally published on OECDONTHELEVEL on 14 July 2018.
In the second post of his Legacy Blog Series, Roel Nieuwenkamp makes a plea for the use of plain language to help advance the responsible business conduct agenda.
Representing the leading international instrument on corporate responsibility can be frustrating at times. Part of that frustration is self-inflicted. Much of it has to do with communication. The bureaucratic jargon has often haunted me.
It is easy to understand why this jargon exists, as vagueness or “constructive ambiguity” can help to find diplomatic solutions. Take this sentence: “The OECD has a non-judicial grievance mechanism, the National Contact Point system that handles specific instances from interested parties. The basis for this mechanism is the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.” This is complete nonsense for most people.
The first hurdle is that most people do not know who or what the OECD is. It is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. I always explain that it is an international organisation like the United Nations, but for a group mostly comprised of advanced economies.
The second hurdle is the title “OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises”. What are they about? I then have to explain that they are in fact recommendations on corporate responsibility. But the title gives nothing away. It doesn’t clarify, for example, that the OECD Guidelines are an international agreement that include a legally binding component with the same legal status as an international treaty or convention. I call them the “Paris agreement on corporate responsibility”, or the “OECD agreement on responsible business”.
Then comes the substance of all this. A lot of the language is very hard to read as it is negotiated language. Many lawyers have shuffled the sentences up and down. A case in point is the term‘specific instances’. Who could ever guess what a specific instance is? It is a terrible term for a complaint. Why not call it a complaint? Well, because many governments at the time did not feel comfortable with that term. Anyway: it is a complaint submitted under the OECD Guidelines….
Now comes the the most tragic term of all: NCPs, an acronym for National Contact Points. What could that possibly mean? It sounds like an obscure call centre. In the UK, the NCP receives complaints about parking tickets because people think it stands for National Car Parks. In Norway it gets even weirder as some people think it stands for the Norwegian Communist Party! In the context of the OECD Guidelines, the NCPs are national authorities that promote responsible business and handle complaints. They offer mediation and, if that fails, they can provide authoritative recommendations. In other words: responsible business authorities.
A couple of years ago, I offered a bottle of champagne to anyone who could propose a better name. The winning proposals were: Office for Responsible Business or Responsible Business Authority. I gave the champagne away but we are still stuck with NCP, as the OECD Guidelines would have to be formally revised for this term to be changed. Notwithstanding the jargon, however, NCPs have the liberty to call themselves whatever they like. For example, the Danish NCP is called the Danish Mediation and Complaints Handling Institution. While the Danish NCP is one of the best performing NCPs, they clearly did not succeed in finding a much better name….
Let’s not wait for a revision of the OECD Guidelines. Let’s start using plain language now. NCPs, I encourage you all to change your name and your narrative. I will offer a nice bottle of Argentinean Malbec wine to all the NCPs that take up this challenge…