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

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.

Raisa McNab
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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