The language services industry reacted vocally and viscerally to the £300 million interpreting contract awarded last year to Applied Language Solutions (ALS). The negative response was largely due to the fact that the U.K. Ministry of Justice (MOJ) awarded the contract to a translation vendor with minimal experience in interpreting which subsequently sought to pay interpreters sub-standard wages. The situation went viral with some extremely bad publicity – everything from the BBC reporting that frustrated court staff resorted to Google Translate to an article explaining that a rabbit was allowed to sign up as an interpreter with ALS. What’s going on?
The ALS debacle is really nothing new. We have seen this scenario play out over and over again with different government contracts around the world. The general pattern looks like this:
- A government body decides to procure language services. It has people involved with minimal if any experience procuring these services. The people in charge typically buy commodity items, such as coffee cups or staplers. They do some basic research and focus primarily on how language services are priced. They know that they will be judged on how much money they save, especially in times of austerity and budget cuts. For example, the Ministry of Justice sought to slash its interpreting budget by a third, saving £60 million over five years.
- The procurement officers treat language services as a commodity. The tender or request for proposals (RFPs) is drafted to include the most basic requirements – specifically, language pairs and price. The RFP typically overlooks critical issues such as experience actually providing the services, understanding of quality issues, and solid relationships with vendors. The procurement people frequently build in unrealistic timelines for milestones into the contract. This has happened repeatedly with the U.S. military interpreting contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Language service providers (LSPs) flock around the opportunity. LSPs spring into action as soon as the opportunity is posted. Even if they have no prior experience delivering the exact type of services needed, they hope and pray to win it. Boldly – and often naively – they think that they can simply acquire all the experience needed after they win the contract, enabling them to deliver what they promise. Because they do not understand the market, they typically forget to budget for costs they will incur as a part of delivering the services.
- The contract is awarded to the lowest bidder. The procurement folks are dazzled by the low-priced offers they receive. Time and time again, the least expensive bid comes from the providers that have the least experience in providing exactly the type of services requested, because these providers fail to understand all the costs involved. When the contract is awarded, the procurement folks receive a pat on the back for a job well done. After all, they have saved taxpayers a great amount of money.
- Reality sets in on the provider side. The LSP that receives the contract typically experiences two emotions: elation followed by horror. Its celebration of the win is quickly replaced by a sinking feeling: “Uh-oh. We have to learn how to deliver these services, and fast. Otherwise, we won’t get paid any of this money after all.” Then, the LSP rallies its staff and focuses on how to meet the contract to the best of its abilities, which regularly will not be at optimal levels. They frequently neglect other clients during this time, as the government contract becomes all-consuming.
- The newbie vendor begins to stumble with fulfillment. Like a child learning to walk for the first time, the contract winner falls down repeatedly when trying to fulfill its terms and conditions, realizing that it’s actually being asked to run. The blunders a vendor makes at this stage can range from highly visible ones (such as the ones with Mission Essential Personnel we have reported here before) to ones that are never detected and remain behind the scenes.
- Competitors and subcontractors begin counterattacks. As they spot the flailing LSP, competitors pounce. Sometimes, they may formally contest the award itself, and this may happen even before fulfillment begins, especially if there is an incumbent that lost the contract (as happened with L-3 and Dyncorp). Subcontractors (usually freelancers) react with outrage at the way they are treated – and rightly so. They are often asked to lower their rates for no one’s benefit but the vendor’s. In other cases, they are asked to do more work than what they typically do, to obtain training or clearances at their own expense, and to jump through other hoops. They begin reporting this unorthodox vendor behavior by writing on message boards, complaining to others, and sometimes, speaking to the media.
- The brouhaha eventually dies down. The public might have an inkling of what is going on, but they rarely care. The most typical scenario is that the vendor continues on with the contract, even if at certain points it looks as if it will be taken away. The government agencies will rarely pay any attention to the mess it created or actually do something to fix it. Rather, they’re concerned with saving money, so even if their decision creates a scandal, they are unlikely to do much. Already, in spite of all the bad publicity, the MOJ is insisting that things have normalized and, predictably, is not showing signs of budging. At most, some jurisdictions or offices might buy from other vendors, but it rarely has much of a financial impact.
- The vendor gets unseated after a few years. We have repeatedly seen that after these contracts are awarded, the vendor in question loses the contract to another competitor the next time it comes up for bid. Why? By that time, a different group of procurement folks are usually involved, and they are equally eager to impress their bosses by saving even more money. And so, the cycle repeats. There are, of course, exceptions.
Unfortunately, the United Kingdom is not alone. We have seen variations of this pattern play out in many other nations in Europe and North America, with federal government agencies in the United States as some of the worst repeat offenders. Certainly, the freelancers are victims in this situation. Unfortunately, no matter how valiantly they defend their rights to earn a decent wage, as interpreters in the U.K. have been doing, the public and the media tend to quickly move on. But the even greater victims are the taxpayers themselves – unaware victims of policies that are pennywise and pound-foolish. Ultimately, society as a whole suffers in these cases.
Who is to blame? Nearsighted spectators point their fingers at the government contractors themselves. While such companies are never blameless, if the awardee had never bid, the government procurement people would have simply awarded the contract to the next lowest bidder, and the same scenario would have likely occurred anyway. Therefore, they are not solely responsible for the problem. Can we blame the procurement people? These government workers are usually just doing what they are told to do – and are certainly not going to risk their jobs by trying to advocate for significant change. Government administrations could also be blamed, but language issues are usually not on their radar. Saving money is.
The issue is complex, and we believe that playing the blame game is foolish. The people who smirk today at one business’s blunders risk being out of business themselves in the future if the value of their services continues to be lost on society at large. All industry participants would benefit from lobbying to raise awareness of language issues, as we’ve written before.
What can anyone do about this recurring problem? Voice your concerns to government officials. (As an example, we submitted a statement of record for the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing that will take place today, titled “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government.”) Get involved and put language services on the radar of your elected officials, no matter where you happen to live and no matter what role in the industry you play. Otherwise, the cycle will keep repeating.