People & Skills
Crisis in the Procurement of Language Services: The Costs to the Public Sector

The General Secretary of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), Geoffrey Bowden, recently told Public Sector Executive magazine that “there is now a ‘critical shortage’ of skilled language professionals willing to work in the public sector.”

The crisis in the procurement of language services by the UK government (and it’s worth pointing out here that the public sector is the largest client for language services providers) and other public sector organisations, to which he is referring, comes after ATC conducted an in-depth survey of its members, it says: “A near unanimous view is that the procurement of language services is treated too much as a commodity with insufficient understanding of how to assess and monitor quality of service. There is a preeminent over-focus by procurers on the cost of service, with a disconnect in understanding of the quality that can be provided under any agreed budget.”

Public body budget squeezes are doing more than deterring good translators from working in the public sector, lack of investment in attracting translators is risking the quality of translation services, and therefore creating further potential costs through things like medical misunderstandings, delays to court proceedings and other errors. The lack in budget means that smaller companies especially are “struggling to break even as public organisations try to save every penny in their contract negotiations.” Of course we’re all for good price negotiating – but not to the detriment of quality, especially in critical areas where poor translation can cost dearly.

The survey itself is an interesting read — it begins by saying “The ATC does not underestimate the challenges that the public sector faces to reduce costs where it can, to find efficiencies in the way it operates, while at the same time improving the quality of service provision. It is in the spirit of increasing quality and value for money that this report has been drafted …” But comes up with some other really quite poignant comments:

ATC “believes that the procurement of language services is in urgent need of an overhaul. The government has a legal responsibility to ensure fair access to its public services so any failure to ensure such access to people who may not speak English leaves it open to serious criticism at a fundamental human rights level. In particular, the lessons from the fallout from the Ministry of Justice procurement in 2011 have not been absorbed by those procuring language services across the public sector and many areas still need major improvement.”

This rather striking comment puts the ‘savings’ issue into perspective: “Commentary from the Association of Translation Companies about the UK’s latest trading figures, which reveal a growing trade deficit with the rest of the world … The ATC has pointed out that a contributory factor in the country’s poor export performance is the lack of language skills, which is costing the UK economy £48 billion a year in lost export sales.”

ATC also remarks with reference to the Scottish Journal of Political Economics (Vol 62, Issue 4, autumn 2015) that organisations which have made “the conscious decision to invest in professional language services achieve a far higher export to turnover ratio,” and says “with current uncertainty around the economic impact of a potential Brexit, maximising export opportunities in the first half of 2016 appears more crucial than ever … Rather than viewing language services as a cost and perceiving the language barrier as too large to overcome, we are therefore campaigning to raise awareness amongst SMEs about the importance of foreign language skills for targeting overseas markets …”

We will come back to the report in more detail, as it highlights some potent points about category expertise in the public sector and the importance of getting the language right to ensure a successful outcome to tenders. It says: “Unavoidably procurers in the public sector are generalists rather than specialists when it comes to understanding the services they are procuring. This can therefore lead to a lack of understanding of language needs and may encourage procurers to use an existing service as a benchmark for a tendering process designed to shave off costs without genuinely assessing the needs of the ultimate service user.”

(As a side note – do take a look at our post A Glossary of Useful Public Sector Terms in Four Languages compiled by EURORAI)