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Toward a Sustainable Language Services Ecosystem for the UK’s Public Sector

Localization Strategy

Many of the United Kingdom’s very large language service contracts for the public sector are being tendered for or awarded in 2020, influencing the working lives and livelihoods of hundreds of language service companies and thousands of freelance translators and interpreters in the UK. Everyone involved in public sector work in the language services ecosystem has a vested interest in how these contracts turn out, but more constructive dialogue is needed across the ecosystem.

An “ecosystem” of language service procurement and provision within the public sector encompasses public sector organizations who commission and use translation and interpreting services, together with the supply chain — language service companies and the translators and interpreters providing these services. At the very heart of the system are the individual people requiring translation and interpreting in their own languages.

When I joined the UK’s Association of Translation Companies (ATC) as its CEO two years ago, this was about as far as my understanding went regarding public sector work, having spent my entire working life in the commercial translation world.

What I didn’t understand were the challenges around providing critical language support in over 300 languages, some very rare, in hugely demanding situations, at a very short notice, with the constraints of austerity measures and changes in the way governments procure language services having completely changed the landscape in the past decade.

There’s no doubt that providing language services for the public sector is a challenging task, but what I also didn’t see or appreciate were the deep divides within the language services supply chain and between the organizations and associations active in the ecosystem.

Many of these divides are borne out of the changes the sector has experienced in the past decade; for example, the introduction of large government framework contracts, or the knock-on effects of many years of financial austerity measures on public sector procurement.

I don’t think anyone would argue that there are many areas within which public sector work could be developed. Public sector procurement practices, pricing and the shape of the supply chain have regularly made industry news globally, and not in a positive light.

However, as I learned more about the procurement of language services for the public sector, the more it was clear that there really was very little genuine collaboration, or even discussion, across the divides, and thus very few genuinely constructive initiatives to improve the ecosystem.

This was a problem.

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a Council whose commitment and experience laid the foundation of what in the past year has crystallised the ATC’s position and objectives of working towards sustainable development in the procurement and provision of language services for the UK’s public sector.

Within the UK’s ecosystem, the ATC represents language service companies from micro enterprises and SME’s to large companies providing the widest range of services in over 300 languages to public sector commissioning authorities. Our members have a pivotal role in delivering language services for the public sector, and in commissioning individual assignments with freelance translators, interpreters and other language professionals.

For the ATC, it was clear from the start that if the association was to truly invest in the development of public sector work, it would have to be based on constructive collaboration and genuinely open channels of communication between industry stakeholders. We wanted to identify and find areas which our stakeholders could get behind, and achieve tangible developments.

The ATC’s Public Sector Manifesto, published in January 2020, set out the association’s objectives toward sustainable development to:

  • identify and promote sustainable best practices within the procurement and provision of language services
  • proactively work together on implementing realistic, concrete solutions that benefit the entire ecosystem
  • work towards a regulated environment, with more effective governance and oversight of the provision of language services at all levels
  • look beyond immediate challenges and into the future, supporting inspirational solutions and technology that advance the development of the industry, in meeting the needs of all users

In the past year, our activities have focused on building the foundations for constructive relationships, and in this I think we have succeeded.

We have brought together stakeholders from the entire ecosystem; founded a platform for ATC member companies to engage in meaningful collaboration, irrespective of size or position in the market; and forged positive, open channels of communication with organizations and associations representing translators and interpreters.

But this is just the start.

Due to its size and continuous, organic evolution, the public sector’s translation and interpreting landscape is highly fragmented, which complicates our understanding of the procurement fulfillment process, and consequently creates challenges around implementing and monitoring best practice.

We believe that through increased understanding and visibility of the landscape, we can pave the way for more efficient and effective public sector procurement in the future. We will do this by continuing to initiate and support research on language services for the public sector, and publishing best practice recommendations and guidance to support our objectives.

We believe that the foundations of sustainability across public sector procurement are laid at framework specification level, which will create a level playing field for the organizations participating in tenders, and as a consequence, their suppliers.

We will continue to identify opportunities for positive contribution, and to focus on constructive conversations that identify shared objectives and goals, and move the development of the ecosystem forwards.

We acknowledge the need for robust governance of public sector contracts and the provision of effective language services within those contracts. We wish to work together with stakeholders to identify ways and means of achieving comprehensive due diligence during tendering, improved governance and oversight of service delivery, as well as reliable checks on the qualifications and competences of translators and interpreters engaged in public sector work.

We advocate open discussion on transparent levels of oversight and quality control that can reasonably and realistically be put in place.

It is in the entire ecosystem’s interest that the procurement and provision of language services is sustainable, and that the individual people depending on language support are able to get it, not just now, but also in ten and twenty years’ time.

There are definite challenges, but also opportunities for improvement, developing technologies, and above all, a new willingness to work together to identify the areas where genuine advances can be made.

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Raisa McNab is chief executive officer at the UK’s Association of Translation Companies (ATC). She holds a Master of Arts degree in translation and interpreting from the University of Turku in her native Finland, and has previously worked in the language services industry as a translator, project manager, and quality, training and development manager. She is interested in collaborative cooperation and sustainable development of the language services industry.

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ATC Publishes Post-Brexit Guide for Language Industry

Language Industry News and Events

In light of the looming post-Brexit immigration rules, the ATC has released a blog post describing the implications for translators and interpreters migrating to the UK for work.

As Europe braces for the final stages of Brexit, immigrants are scrambling to figure out ways to navigate travel and work with the UK’s new “points-based system.” The new rules could have a considerable impact on translators and interpreters, who have been able to travel freely under the EU’s freedom of movement. In light of the major changes to immigration, the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) released a blog post this week describing the impact on the language services industry and providing a guide for translators and interpreters hoping to continue working in the UK post-Brexit.

“The ATC and its members have actively campaigned to secure continued access to the linguistic skills of translators, interpreters and multilingual staff to language service companies and the UK’s public and private sectors,” said the post. “Our aim is to ensure that the route to these skilled roles remains accessible post-Brexit.”

Among the more obvious routes, the Skilled Worker path will likely attract a large number of translators and interpreters, especially given that the UK will not put a cap on skilled workers, nor will prospective employers need to advertise for a vacancy for a set time in the UK before opening up a position for international recruitment.

While these rules have upsides, applicants must still score 50 mandatory points from a job offer from a licensed sponsor at the required national qualifications level 3, and fulfill the English language requirements. An applicant can earn points based on factors such as salary, shortages in the occupation, and PhD completion in a subject relevant to the occupation.

“For translators and interpreters under SOC code 3412, the relevant minimum salary for the points-based system is £25,600, as is the ‘going rate’ for the profession,” the post explains. “For project coordinators under SOC code 3539, the relevant minimum salary for the points-based system is £25,600, and the ‘going rate’ for the profession is £23,300.”

Under the new rules, both undergraduates and graduates will be able to stay in the UK, but the maximum stay depends on the level of education. The rules also grant additional points for new entrants under 26 years of age who are switching from the student or graduate routes to the skilled worker route and are working toward recognized professional qualifications or moving directly into postdoctoral positions.

Even with these possible routes for translators and interpreters, the ATC is still lobbying for translators and interpreters to be included on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). For such an industry that intrinsically requires migrants, lawmakers in the UK may have to consider what type of negative impacts the new rules will have on translators and interpreters as well as those whom they serve.

“In our linguistically diverse society, translation and interpreting services also underpin the fair and equitable treatment of speakers of more than 300 different languages,” said the blog. “The services of the UK’s 1,600 language service companies ensure that the justice system, police and the national health service have access to the information they need, when they need it, and whichever language they need it in.”

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