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Language lessons

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Geoffrey Bowden, general secretary of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), talks PSE through its new report on the quality of public sector procurement of language services.

The ATC says there is a “critical shortage of skilled language professionals willing to work in the public sector”, because those procuring these services keep failing to recognise the importance of quality, concentrating only on upfront cost. 

Although public sector procurement is the largest single element of the UK language market, more and more language companies, translators and interpreters are walking away from these opportunities – because the relentless cost-cutting makes it a struggle just to break even. Quality inevitably declines, which can have long-term implications both for citizens (who are let down by bad translation and interpretation) and for public sector organisations, which can end up paying more in the long term. 

The ATC has issued a new report making these points forcefully. ‘Recommendations for the future procurement of language services in the public sector’ is based on an in-depth survey of the organisation’s members, big and small, across the language market – many of which are active suppliers to government, councils, the NHS and other parts of the public sector. 

Serious implications 

In an interview with PSE, ATC general secretary Geoffrey Bowden said the implications of poor language provision are grave. 

“It’s an access issue, above all else,” he said. “Every citizen, regardless of their language or their mother tongue, is entitled to access to public services provided by the government, local government, the NHS, and so on. 

“If they cannot participate – for instance, if during a court case they cannot understand anything to do with the proceedings – they’re being denied access and perhaps being denied a fair trial.”  

Lessons from the MoJ contract 

Two big language framework procurement processes are currently happening for the public sector – one by the Crown Commercial Service, and one by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which in 2011-12 was the subject of scathing reports by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and later the National Audit Office. 

That was because its framework agreement with Applied Language Solutions (later bought by Capita) ended up in “total chaos”, in the words of former PAC chair Margaret Hodge MP. The company at the time “was clearly incapable of delivering” a £42m contract covering the whole country – when the contract went live, the MoJ needed access to 1,200 interpreters, but the company had only 280 properly assessed interpreters willing to work for it. 

Never one to mince words, Hodge concluded: “This is an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service.” 

The Justice Select Committee also came up with recommendations, and an independent review following the implementation of some of these in November 2014, by consultants OptimityMatrix, continued to find problems. In statistical terms, the contract was doing much better, though there were still many complaints and problems. Between July and September 2015, Capita Translation and Interpreting completed 97% of requests for language services, not far off the 98% target and the best rate yet achieved (at one point the figure achieved was just 58%). 

The contract expires on 30 October this year, with the competition for the next one ongoing. 

Bowden said: “There are some very large framework arrangements and processes going on, right as we speak. So, the MoJ, which hit the headlines for the wrong reasons three years ago, is going through the process again. Let’s hope they’ve learned some lessons from their previous efforts. 

“Other government departments, led by the Crown Commercial Service, are going through something in parallel. They’re certainly looking at placing hundreds of millions of pounds worth of language service contracts, scheduled to be announced in the summer.” 

Many councils and NHS organisations have their own local arrangements, and even organisations that primarily use the national frameworks have the option to go to local providers if no-one can be found via the framework. 



The ATC’s own report contains 29 recommendations, covering the most important aspects of public sector language services: having a citizen-centric approach; conducting language needs assessments; community language audits; training for public sector staff who procure these services; choosing between local and national services; evaluation, monitoring and performance management; realism about availability of interpreters and translators; knowledge-sharing; templates for tender documents; and a portal to advertise contracts. 

Bowden says the recommendations and findings were based on thorough and in-depth research. “This is not just plucked out of the sky as our gut feeling. This is based on experience. There’s a lack of joined-up thinking, quite often. We cite examples of where a patient might have an appointment with a clinician, and then the next stage might be putting that patient in touch with social services. But there’s no joined-up connectivity between the various public services that an individual is accessing and their language requirement. There’s a lot of duplication and a lack of understanding about what the end user – the patient, or the immigrant, or whoever is on the ‘receiving end’ of public services – needs in the way of language services, and whether they’re actually being served properly.” 

Starting at schools 

Some of the problems stem from the simple lack of trained and assessed professionals in this field, particularly interpreters. Bowden said he partly blames education policy for this, because for years pupils often rejected languages at GCSE and A-level. 

He said: “If we’re focusing on the public sector, we need to address this urgently. But there seems to be a lack of government will.” 

PSE spoke to Bowden shortly after David Cameron made a speech about the lack of English language skills among some communities, especially Muslim women, and an alleged link to susceptibility to extremism and radicalisation.  

He announced a £20m fund to tackle this, but Bowden noted that this was hard to take seriously since the government has cut far more than that from the budget for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses since 2009. “We’ve got a flip-flopping government in terms of policy, which does affect our ability to deliver.” 

‘Seriously distorting the market’ 

On the framework deals, he said: “This government and the previous Coalition were only interested in cutting the cost, and seem to lack the understanding that if you cut costs, you’re likely to compromise quality.” 

The report says the effect of this is harming not just people in need of language services, but the companies too: “The public sector’s misguided application of its vast purchasing leverage is seriously distorting the language market.” 

Poorer quality services mean more mistakes will be made, Bowden added, which can mean fresh court hearings, legal action being taken against the public service, or health procedures being conducted incorrectly. “That’s extremely costly for that local organisation, and for taxpayers in general,” he said. 

Some in government clearly don’t realise that it takes as long to train an interpreter as it does to train a GP, Bowden told us. “I suspect that those who are commissioning services from the private sector to supply the public sector think, ‘well, I can order a beer in French, how difficult can it be?’ They don’t have any real understanding of the skillset required for an effective language service in settings where accuracy is absolutely vital.” 

Ironically, one of the largest employers of trained linguists is GCHQ. Bowden suggested that this shows when it comes to security, the government recognises the need to employ plenty of the best-trained people – but not when it comes to public services for ordinary citizens. The ATC encourages its members to get accredited to BS EN15038 (and the ISO 17100 standard that will gradually replace it) for translation, as well as ISO 13611 for interpreting. “That does give purchasers – whether in the public sector or private sector – a degree of comfort that certain procedures are going to be adhered to, which will help to deliver quality services.”

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