ULG's Language Services Blog

Five Best Practices for Meaningful Language Access in Government

State and local governments are navigating an era of increasing diversity and demand for language access from both constituents and the federal government. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 25 million people have limited English proficiency (LEP) and need language assistance to access services and participate in local government.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, programs that get federal money must provide meaningful access to linguistically and culturally diverse populations.

Meaningful access often requires increasing community outreach and using culturally competent communication strategies. According to the CDC, cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals to enable effective work in cross-cultural situations.

An optimized language access plan (LAP) ensures compliance and builds trust with diverse constituent communities through culturally competent messaging and engagement.

During the planning process, government offices can also uncover ways to streamline how they provide these services to make the most of limited budgets.

Here is a set of best practices that governments at all levels can use to improve their language services and make sure that everyone has meaningful access.

#1: Define Your Constituents’ Needs and Touchpoints

Use the following language access checklist to determine how well your current processes meet the needs of your community.

A thorough assessment will include all of these details:

  • Define your community’s language needs by identifying the languages spoken and the types of assistance your constituents require.
  • Identify the frequency, channels, and services where constituents interact with your departments.
  • Highlight any gaps in your current processes or barriers to access.
  • Describe the subject matter to be translated or interpreted. Specialized subjects like healthcare require translators and interpreters with subject matter expertise.

How to determine which languages to target

The language needs in your community will vary depending on the level of government involvement and whether the area you serve is rural, suburban, or urban.

Urban areas tend to have more immigrant and refugee communities and a wider variety of spoken languages. Over 200 languages are spoken in New York City, for instance. In suburban and rural areas, there are usually fewer languages to plan for, but each community has its own needs.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services maintains a list of the top 15 most commonly spoken languages for each state. This is an excellent place to start your discovery process, but remember that local needs will vary. At the municipal level, the best course of action is to survey the community to better understand their language needs directly from the source.

#2: Develop and Implement a Cost-effective Language Access Plan

Now that you've defined your community's needs, it’s time to develop an action plan that meets those needs, complies with all applicable laws and regulations, and provides meaningful access to all constituents.

Create efficient systems to handle language access requests

Define your budget for language assistance services, and look for ways to streamline existing processes so you can provide language access options for each constituent touchpoint without exceeding that budget. This could include document translation for written documents and forms, on-site interpreters or video remote interpreting for in-person interactions, over-the-phone interpreting, and more. Working with a single language solutions partner (LSP) simplifies the planning process and can result in cost savings.

For example, ULG often works with organizations that have different departments that utilize multiple LSPs simultaneously. This adds unnecessary cost and can make creating cohesion in your team’s messaging difficult. Coordinating your efforts by bringing everything under one roof will create efficiencies.

Your constituents must be able to request language access at the time of service, whether in person, over the phone, via email, or by standard mail. For internal needs, many organizations find it helpful to submit all translation requests through a single website portal. The most advanced LSPs offer a Translation Management System that allows your organization to request translations and track progress, streamlining the process.

#3: Publicize Your Plan

A language access plan won’t help the people it’s intended for if they don’t know it exists. How will your constituents know that you have language services available? Make a plan to inform them.

This step could include the following:

  • Mailing letters, postcards, or flyers.
  • Sending emails.
  • Posting notices on your website or social media channel.
  • Playing multilingual announcements in your lobby.
  • Utilizing an advertising campaign, either digital or out of home.
  • Posting signage.

Train staff members

Everyone on your team needs to know their responsibilities when it comes to ensuring constituents can access services in their preferred languages. To keep things running smoothly, designate a team or individual responsible for implementing, monitoring, and progressing your plan.

Then, train your entire team according to their newly defined, clearly outlined roles.

#4: Analyze Your Performance and Optimize for Access

A saying often attributed to Peter Ducker states, "What gets measured, gets improved." Measuring the success of your language access program can save money and improve the quality of services over time.

Determine which metrics are most important to your organization and the people you serve, evaluate periodically, and then make adjustments as needed. Here are some examples to help you get started:

  • Primary and preferred languages of the people you interact with.
  • Use of language assistance services such as interpreters and translators.
  • Staff time spent on language assistance services.
  • Cost and effectiveness of translated materials and interpreter services.

Meaningful access is constantly evolving. You should adjust your language access plan to reflect changing circumstances as your community evolves.

Periodic reviews and updates ensure you’re providing the highest quality service to your community while utilizing your budget as efficiently as possible.

Here are some areas we recommend examining:

  • Are you using up-to-date technologies to improve the constituent experience in a cost-effective way?
  • Can you optimize call flows for callers with LEP for greater efficiency and better service?
  • Does training need to be improved for linguists or staff?
  • Do you have the right people and expertise on your team?

#5: Utilize Our Language Access Acceleration Roadmap

Governments work best when constituents are actively engaged, and it takes more than basic language access to foster this engagement. If you need more detailed suggestions on how to improve language access, we’re here to help. We designed our free Language Access Acceleration Roadmap to help government offices and organizations optimize language access plans and programs.

Use it to gauge where you currently stand, determine where you want to end up, and access expert recommendations on how to get there. We include insights on measuring results, overcoming common challenges, and accelerating community engagement.

Our team has 35 years of experience, a worldwide network of linguists and cultural experts, and access to the latest technology to support your language access goals. Download the Language Acceleration Roadmap today, or connect with us to see how we can help. 

Download the Language Access Roadmap


Topics: Government