The cost of language services to the public sector is an extremely emotive issue at the best of times, not least when stories like this, this and this one are doing the rounds.
You won’t be surprised to hear that most companies in our industry, that supply to various areas of public services will plead “no comment” when asked about their role in this expense. They simply will not go anywhere near this subject, hiding behind the understandable excuse of “Well, it’s a legal requirement! We’re simply providing the same service as many others, so why should we be blamed for the costs the Government has committed to?”.
You will note, I said most companies – hence this post.
This topic is a proverbial minefield. For a start you have to explain how you deal with the conflicts of running and growing a private company with what is, let’s face it, fulfilling a public service – one that you sign up to the moment you bid for a contract. The former can’t be used to absolve private companies of their fare share of responsibility – which we’re very aware of.
Now, all liberal vs nationalist arguments aside (not to mention the blatantly race-based comments seen on the discussion boards of late!), what we should really be addressing is the following ugly truth…
That truth being that the responsibility of reducing public sector costs must also fall on the shoulders of the private companies who do the supplying.
Our response to that, which is something you won’t see anywhere else, isn’t sensationalist. It will not be explained to you amidst the headlines of “£xx million wasted on translation for foreigners”, either.
Translation: Not always a funny subject (this example isn't one of ours, either)!
Now, to stop well short of claiming to be a ‘champion of employment’, since our services provide tens of thousands of people in the UK with regular work, I’d like to say at this stage that when I first set up this company, I did so with a specific aim in mind – to operate ethically.
To do this, we had to provide high quality services, deliver them on time and do it with a focus on excellent customer service. Once we established the basics of our service, we then began to introduce more ethical practices, such as supporting the UN global compact, reducing our carbon footprint with ISO 14001, being awarded the work-life balance award, etc.
You are most likely asking at this stage, “OK then, what are you doing to cut the costs that fall at the feet of the taxpayer, which ultimately benefits companies like yours”, “How does your company make a difference?”.
Simply put, we have addressed the following three facts:
1) Translation and Interpreting aren’t the only two options.
Companies like ours and anyone who used has used our services, like NHS front line staff, for example, will all tell you that there will always be a certain level of demand for language services, as the legal right to an interpreter is protected by four different statutes. To suggest otherwise is simply impractical, but that’s not the issue here.
One crucial point that most companies won’t disclose (especially to their customers, simply because the fallout is too great), is that any base of linguists can be used to develop and deliver English language starter courses for non-English speakers. Since last year we’ve been trying to do just that, by also including educational institutions.
Think about it! Rather than have to pay for a translation of each and every single interaction, a one-off cost can help to integrate resident non-English speakers so that they don’t need to have an interpreter for each and every hospital appointment.
This is the type of solution we are suggesting, instead of flatly criticising the Government for “mismanaging” its supplier base. A supplier base which, may I add, has typically offered little alternatives or improvements beyond gradual price rises.
2) Waste in our industry has been a big problem for too long. It needn’t be…
Prior to ALS operating in the public sector, many existing suppliers were very happy to sit on big contracts, safe in the knowledge that the way they were operating gave little choice to their customers. In this industry, that approach is unacceptable.
The waste that many suppliers contribute to in the public sector goes unnoticed most of the time, and the hidden costs of administration and project management do exist, but are often an ‘unknown’.
To minimise this unknown cost, our customers can opt to use our services via secure, web-based applications that are accessible via any standard web-browser. This allows quicker access, greater ease of use and transparency (particularly with pricing), but it also provides our customers with up to date management information – so they can see exactly where they are spending and where they don’t need to spend excessively. The value that presents for forecasting and reducing spend, when coupled with the next point, is about to become much clearer.
Another huge problem with a relatively ‘easy fix’, is opting for instant telephone interpreting rather than insisting on the physical presence of an interpreter. This can drastically cut costs and is something we have been actively promoting for years.
By reducing and minimising waste, even by the few examples set out above, we’re helping to give a clearer idea of what our services should be costing our customers, where we can add value and, more importantly – how to reduce costs.
3) Innovation is too far down the agenda for most suppliers
Interpreters who show up late (or not at all) because they weren’t given correct instructions/directions, interpreters who can’t develop their skills or keep up to date with legal requirements – these scenarios all contribute to compromised standards and increased costs. They are also, unfortunately, commonplace for most users of language services.
That’s why we have incorporated things like interpreter mapping, automated workflows via the web, developing iPhone applications for interpreters on the move, developing online tutorials for new and existing interpreters that keep their skills up to date (hand hygiene requirements in hospitals, interpreting on behalf of vulnerable people, etc). These are just some of the innovations we’ve brought to our customers.
By offering more innovations, we’re offering smarter ways to work, making sure our customers and end users get a better deal for every pound spent.
We could argue, and we’ve said it before, that the world needs more integration with languages – it’s a very easy point for us to make. That argument would be seen as all too convenient from any company in our industry, especially one who supplies these services to the NHS and various police forces – like we do.
However, in light of the work we’ve been doing and the improvements we’re making, we’re proving, in gradual increments, that the status quo need not be the only way of operating.
By revolutionising ‘traditional’ working practices in our industry, we’ve begun to change what our customers expect from all their suppliers – because they make sense, yet nobody has tried to improve anything.
To give you an idea of the effect that all this can have on our customers balance sheets, some have made savings of up to 75% on their interpreting spend – all because we decided to take our responsibilities seriously.
So as for “no comment” to the more difficult questions, I think we’ll pass on that option.
Can you say the same about your language services provider?