Rebalancing cost and quality in translation

Geoffrey Bowden, of the Association of Translation Companies, addresses a careful balancing act for the public sector: the pressure to reduce cost against maintaining quality language services.

The government has a legal responsibility to ensure fair access to all public services, making the public sector one of the most significant users of language services in the UK. Current estimates indicate that more than £140 million a year is spent on providing essential translation and interpreting services, with such levels of spend attracting heavy criticism from a number of leading political figures. As a result, public sector bodies across the country are now facing widespread pressure to reduce costs.

Committed to ensuring the highest standards of language services in the UK, the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), the language sector’s leading professional body, is warning against knee jerk reactions, which may compromise standards across vital public services. Instead, following an in depth survey of its members, the ATC has published a detailed report ‘Recommendation for the future procurement of language services in the public sector’, calling on the sector to undertake an urgent review into the procurement of language services to ensure value for money without sacrificing quality.

Indeed, while the ATC does not underestimate the challenges that public sector agencies face to reduce costs and find efficiencies in the way they operate, it acknowledges that achieving value for money should not be at the expense of ensuring a high quality service with a warning that sub-standard language services can actually cause increased public spend. For example, through medical misunderstandings or delays to court proceedings. And it is in the spirit of increasing quality and value for money that this report has been drafted, demonstrating the commitment of the ATC in supporting the government in its agenda to get the best value for the taxpayer.

The report addresses eight key areas, ranging from the need to adopt a citizen centric approach to developing a robust language strategy which involves auditing community need, leaving sufficient flexibility in nationally procured contracts and effectively managing language service providers.

Taking a citizen centric approach
Unavoidably, procurers in the public sector are often generalists rather than specialists when it comes to understanding the services they’re procuring. This can lead to a lack of understanding of language needs and may encourage procurers to use an existing service as a benchmark for the tendering process, designed to shave off costs without genuinely assessing the needs of the ultimate user.

Additionally, few public sector organisations have a language procurement strategy and, as such, language requirements tend to be driven by the immediate communication needs of an organisation rather than being genuinely citizen centric. Language services available to an NHS patient for example may focus only on the provision of an interpreter during a consultation to assist a doctor. However, follow-up letters notifying the patient of further appointments or requesting contact details are often not considered, leaving the patient only partially served.

We recommend that procurers should adopt a citizen-centric approach, helping to break the silos created within public sector organisations.

A language needs assessment
There are some key questions procurers of language services need to consider before they invite interested parties to tender for work. Additionally, and importantly their work needs to be informed by a robust language strategy.

Some key questions for consideration include: Is there a case for the development of shared services?; What are the total verbal and written interactions that the citizen could potentially require?; What outcome does the citizen need from each of these linguistic interactions?; What information about a citizen needs to be communicated to public sector workers?; What are the demographics of a geographical area where language services are required?; What language mapping has been conducted?; What experience do public sector employees have of working with language professionals and what training is currently provided to maximise the relationship?; What are the costs to the public purse of not providing satisfactory language services (for example through failed appointments, miscommunication, misunderstanding and possible litigation)?; and does any agreed national service level agreement allow adequate flexibility for language providers to adapt services for local need?

For procurers to fully understand end user requirements, it’s recommended that they work using a robust language strategy. This should be developed with the support of frontline service deliverers and service users requiring written and verbal communication.

Community Language Audit
Too often, little consideration is given to the languages actually being used in a local community whilst evidence suggests that if an assessment of needs takes place, this can often be a rushed process. Additionally, many language providers report that the procurement of language services is often undertaken ‘on the quiet’ for fear of causing controversy over how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

To reduce waste from procuring language capabilities that in reality are not needed, an accurate estimate of the languages required in the delivery of a contract is essential, particularly in the case of languages defined as ‘rare’, which are always difficult to secure.

Procurers of language services should conduct an audit of the community where the service is to be delivered.

Training and development
The more frontline staff understand how interpreting and translating services are delivered, the greater the likelihood of creating a better understanding of the language communication needs of the citizen.

The assessment process should also include understanding the level of training and development required for public sector staff on working with language professionals.

Local and national contracts
In recent years the government has devolved some procurement decisions to the local level – for example in giving GPs commissioning responsibilities – and in other areas have centralised contracts, as is the case with the Ministry of Justice. While procuring at the national level may increase the complexity of assessing a local language service need, it may also simplify the supplier/customer relationship and ensure a tighter control on costs.

Another key advantage of procuring at a national level is the opportunity to obtain an enhanced view of cross-organisational needs. It can be too easy for the local procurement of language services to only consider their organisation without taking a more holistic approach to a citizen’s language support requirement. At the same time, variability will exist in the languages required in different parts of the country. Rare languages will have fewer qualified interpreters available to meet demand and this could affect the ability of a language provider to meet this need.

You must also consider the locations a language provider will be required to attend. More remote and rural areas create travel complications and could mean fewer appointments at any time can be made. Furthermore, areas of the country that have a lower population will more likely have fewer interpreters living in the area. This will again impact on the frequency that appointments can be made, particularly for rare language needs.

A key advantage of procuring at a local level is that those receiving the service will have direct control over the service provider on a day-to-day basis. Procurers should allow sufficient flexibility in any nationally agreed contract to enable local requirements to be met. As a rule, the larger the scope of the services being procured, the more flexibility is needed for the contract to take into account local circumstances.

Evaluating language service providers
After establishing the language service requirements, procurers need to develop comprehensive assessment criteria to evaluate potential LSPs, based on two broad criteria: the quality of service provided by interpreters or translators conducting the work; and the operational effectiveness of the LSP to deliver the overall service.

Procurers should develop a comprehensive matrix to evaluate the capabilities of LSPs offering their services. Further details on how to evaluate the credentials of LSPs can be found in sections 6.1 to sections 6.9 of the full report, including details on due diligence, IT capabilities and 24 hour services.

Availability of language professionals
There needs to be more realistic understanding about the on-call availability of language professionals. For example, interpreting services are often required at specific times and demand cannot be met due to a serious shortfall in the availability of interpreters.

Procurers need to have realistic expectations about the availability of language professionals and LSPs need to be clear about what is possible when responding to a tender and not over promise.

Performance management
The requirements for every language services contract will differ so there is no one size fits all monitoring process. However, the base for establishing a monitoring system should always be the language strategy of the organisation using the services.

An LSP should be expected to develop its own plan that clearly sets out in detail how it intends to meet the needs of the public sector organisations they are supplying. For transparency, this should be shared with the service procurer.

Reconnecting quality and cost
The public sector remains the largest single element of the UK language market. However, its focus on driving down costs at the expense of quality has resulted in many companies, particularly SMEs, struggling to break even when servicing public service accounts. The result is that such enterprises are increasingly walking away from offering their services. This has an adverse effect, not only on the UK government’s ambition to place 33 per cent of public sector contracts with SMEs by the end of 2020, but for commissioners to be able to access a wide range of effective and quality language services.

Just as worrying, ill-thought-through government commissioning policies are deterring some of the biggest players from participating in the market. Capita TI, the ATC member that took over the Ministry of Justice contract when it acquired Applied Language Services, for example declined to enter the fray when the framework agreement came up for grabs again.

The most significant recommendation from this report is therefore the need for the public sector to reconnect service quality with the cost to deliver that service, and not to compromise one to deliver against targets on the other.

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