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The Language Wall

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
June 20, 2021

Inclusion has become a vital goal—along with diversity and equity—yet local governments struggle to center inclusion alongside efficiency and effectiveness. We have learned that when governance lacks inclusion, complications ensue. For one, it is challenging for public servants to effectively serve the public when government is not reflective of a city’s diverse demographics. It is even more challenging when segments of its population speak a language other than English or have limited English proficiency (LEP).

How can a local government provide even the most basic, essential services when it communicates to residents in a language that many cannot understand? To reach allcommunity members, local governments must prioritize inclusion and invest in language equity programs to ensure everyone—not just those who speak English—can access important information and resources.

According to the promote democratic participation principle of ASPA’s Code of Ethics with Practices, public servants have an obligation to, “Assist members of the public in their dealings with government and respond to the public in ways that are complete, clear and easy to understand.” If governments do not provide high-quality, easily-understood information in the primary languages spoken by their community members, public sector employees cannot meet their ethical responsibility.

Local governments employ numerous half-way measures to address this known language equity gap, particularly by using Google Translate on their websites. But Google Translate is far from perfect and its accuracy varies widely depending on the nature of the text and the target language. There are a few key points to keep in mind with this technology: 1) accuracy is not guaranteed, and inaccuracies may go undetected unless proofread by someone fluent in both languages; 2) understandability of the text at the eighth grade level, which is an equity best practice, is not assured; and 3) only text on the website is translated, not PDFs.

It does not inspire confidence that while the City of Seattle provides a Google Translate function on its website, it also provides a 128-word disclaimer disavowing any responsibility for inaccuracies or negative outcomes. In a more encouraging example, Detroit provides the Google Translate function but also embeds a smartsheet on its website where community members can, for example, request help—such as on-site interpreters, assistance in filling out City documents, and document translation—in their native languages.

However, if a city communicates critical information such as emergency management and preparedness, hate crimes, sexual assault and other public safety and health information in PDFs and does not provide high-quality, accessible translations, then exclusion, not inclusion, is its organizational engagement approach. It is then important to ask: who benefits and who is burdened by this status quo?

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) articulates an Inclusion principle in its Code of Ethics under Tenet 4 guiding members to, “Ensure that all people within their jurisdiction have the ability to actively engage with their local government,” and to, “Strive to eliminate barriers to public involvement in decisions, programs and services.” If a public servant can identify language access as a barrier to public participation in local government, it becomes an ethical mandate to eliminate that barrier.

With one in five United States residents speaking a language other than English at home and nearly 70% of the country’s largest cities becoming more racially and ethnically diverse than they were in 2010, English language proficiency can no longer be the default for access to public information and services. To continue the status quo in this way must be recognized as strengthening systems of oppression in which government serves the white and English-speaking populace at the expense of everyone else.

To eliminate these inequities, applying the four-part criteria developed by the Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA)—procedural fairness, access, quality and outcomes—can be useful.

Language equity issues in government have persisted for decades. But it took the pandemic’s exposure of these gaps and the dangers of not communicating lifesaving and disease-preventing information clearly to all community members for many cities to take real action. When we began to see the disproportionate COVID-19 illness and death rates experienced by our Black, Latinx and immigrant communities, some jurisdictions like King County (WA) and the City of Long Beach (CA) swiftly added language and racial equity personnel and resources to their pandemic response teams to better ensure essential public health information—and not disinformation—could be accessed and understood by our hardest hit community members.

Faced with the pandemic, many cities improved in language equity, but will this trend endure? Reverting to the status quo of exclusion should not be viewed as ethically permissible, yet without intentional effort and allocated resources, exclusion is likely. Local governments must seize the opportunity to proactively build more inclusive communication and engagement approaches so that all community members can access needed services and information and participate in government.

The issue of language equity will only grow more important and complex as cities increasingly seek to become “smart” with the use of internal and public-facing technologies and apps. Local governments must rethink, rewire and reinvest in systematizing inclusion and equity in operations, purchasing, communications and public engagement. Otherwise, exclusion of non-English speaking and LEP residents will persist through technology. Leading with a focus on inclusion will open up new possibilities for the advancement and well-being of cities, and transform the future of public service.


Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is an equity/inclusion consultant, strategist, and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Any views expressed herein are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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