Ensuring Resident Needs Don't Get Lost in Translation

Cities can use language access plans to ensure they reach everyone in their communities.
January 22, 2019 AT 11:00 AM
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

More than 145 different languages are spoken in Houston, which presents a challenging circumstance for a community trying to talk with its residents, never mind fully engaging them. Almost half of the city's residents over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home -- the highest percentage of any city in the U.S. In an effort to ensure residents have access to city services such as affordable housing, public safety and social services, then Mayor Annise Parker issued an Executive Order directing agencies to translate essential public information into the top five commonly used languages when feasible.

Houston ranked well in the Governing and Living Cities Equipt to Innovate survey in the area of resident-involvement. Cities who score highly in this area have effective ways to reach as many citizens as possible, from technology to non-digital methods. Eighty-five percent of cities surveyed provide materials, services and meetings in languages other than English, and 90 percent say that their resident input is meaningfully incorporated into creating policy and improving service delivery. However, challenges remain to reach harder-to-engage or underrepresented populations.

Language assistance plans and language access plans are a good way to connect demographics, data, policies and goals. Houston’s Department of Housing and Community Development has a comprehensive language assistance plan as a component of its consolidated plan process and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires an organization to ensure meaningful access to federally funded programs. The plan analyzes existing and likely limited English proficient (LEP) individuals, as well as the frequency, type and importance of the service that LEP persons might need. The Houston Housing Authority also has a similar plan.

These plans can be developed by any number of agencies and departments, and numerous versions exist online that can be adapted to fit an organization’s needs. The U.S. Department of Justice has a language access assessment and planning tool that would be useful to cities to either develop a new plan or evaluate an existing plan.

There are also resources for entities with more specific goals or missions. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has a guide that assists in developing a language access plan aimed at eliminating health disparities. Tip sheets to develop plans focused on specific social issues are also available from resource centers like the Migration Policy Institute and Safe Housing Partnerships. The National Latino Network and the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence also offer resources to help target specific demographics when developing plans.

With the right plan in place, cities can ensure no resident gets lost in the translation of government.