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Outsourcing Court Language Services: Procurement Must Try Harder

on Tuesday 15 March 2016 Written by David Martin

If we want to attract highly skilled linguists back into the public sector and reduce waste, government procurers must value language professionals and demand innovation – not simply pass phone calls to someone else. This was the assertion of the software coding entrepreneur Jurga Zilinskiene.

Addressing the European Criminal Law Association yesterday at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London, Jurga said it saddened her to see so many talented linguists abandoning the court interpreter profession following the botched Ministry of Justice (MoJ) procurement for language services in 2011 and the subsequent decline in standards.

She said, “It is easy to see why professionals would shun the sector when demand for linguists in the private sector is booming, the work is more exciting and appreciated, and the UK has become the global capital for language skills”. Conversely, linguists do not feel valued in the public sector, they’re poorly paid and all the public criticism has tarnished the role, with some linguists not wanting the job on their CV.

The event was entitled 'Lost in Translations' and was an examination of the legal and practical problems associated with the implementation (or non-implementation) of Directive 2010/64/EU – the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings.

Other speakers on the panel were Professor Estella Baker, Professor of European Criminal Law and Justice at De Montford University and member of the European Commission’s Expert Group on EU Criminal Policy, and Libby McVeigh, a qualified solicitor and the Legal and Policy Director of Fair Trials International. The panel was moderated by Professor John Spencer QC, Emeritus Professor at University of Cambridge and President of the European Criminal Law Association

Jurga said procurers need to understand the importance of quality of linguistic skills, citing the report on the public sector procurement of translation services by the Association of Translation Companies published in January, who articulated the issue very well when they said:

‘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’.

The report laid out a number of practical recommendations for public sector staff, but its principal recommendation was to reconnect service quality with the cost of service delivery.

It’s time, therefore, that interpreters and their skill sets are factored into the forefront of proceedings, while procurers need to ensure that there is a robust management structure for delivery of court interpreting. The challenge is one that faces many industries and it’s about putting the right resources, in the right place, at the right time, for an agreed price.

Jurga said the problem has already been cracked in some sectors. For example we know it as People Per Hour; the Uber Model; Air B&B; and Apple Apps Store. Those solutions are part of a new trend towards a “Gig Economy”, an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.

Global players like Apple and Uber don’t employ sensational App designers or manage fleets of cars – they use innovative software and systems to unite people and overcome barriers that enable them to deliver services in the most efficient manner. She believes the MoJ’s outsourcing has not delivered better performance and efficiency because the system of managing linguists has not really changed – there has been no ground-breaking Uber-style innovation.

She went on to explain how business success comes from understanding what customers need (in this case, the courts) and what suppliers (in this case professional linguists) want and then finding innovative ways to create a win-win situation that delivers the service. Government procurement officers don’t seem to get this. Instructing a private contractor to make phone calls instead of you is not actually innovation – it’s passing the phone to someone else.

So what does innovation look like? Jurga thinks the first element is technology and she quoted Optimity’s report that says technology is key, in particular video conferencing. This saves costs in a number ways, particularly in regards to money paid out for travel time and waiting. In Jurga’s experience, an interpreter can spend as little as 20% of their time interpreting and as much as 80% on travelling and waiting. A greater application of video interpreting could allow cadres of interpreters to work from a designated office, and crucially also offer greater potential for working on a near full-time basis.

The saving from adopting better resource allocation and workflow management are potentially huge but they can only be achieved if resources are managed and coordinated effectively.

She added that this is not science fiction, it is doable and she is proof. A software platform she created called QCS+ manages her network of 3,000 linguists like nowhere else in the industry. This has created a highly efficient and effective paperless office where skilled managers deploy resources with precision. This blend of expert management is her hallmark and the reason why her firm wins business from discerning clients and has grown so well.

The second element for success is hourly rates. Jurga strongly believes that good interpreters love to work in a professional environment where they are stretched, respected and used efficiently. That is why they work in the corporate sector. “Wherever they work”, she says, “they deserve recognition for their unique skills and should be rewarded with a fair wage for the work they do”. Using smart technology to squeeze out wasted effort and unnecessary bureaucracy makes savings that can be used to reduce costs to the taxpayer and pay linguists better rates that reflect their expertise. 

She stressed that the UK Government must consult with professional bodies that represent linguists and understand better than anyone what quality means in their industry. If they also learn lessons from the most innovative providers we will see disruptive technology create a win-win situation that improves the court interpreting sector. If not, the telephone will be given to someone else to answer, taxpayers money will be wasted; cases will continue to be adjourned and good linguists will continue to avoid the public sector.