Doing More with Less on Language Access

This article was first published on the Migration Policy Institute’s Language Portal,  Migration Policy Institute ( is an independent think tank studying the migration of people worldwide.  Part of my job is overseeing Montgomery County, Maryland’s language access work. 

Like many counties and districts across the country, Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County, has experienced a rapid increase in its foreign-born population, doubling since 1990 to account for nearly 31 percent of the community’s 1 million residents. At the same time, Montgomery County faces a tight budgetary environment, like others across the country. In order to meet the growing needs of the limited English proficient (LEP) clients the county serves, we have learned to do more with less.

Below are some of the cost-conscious strategies we have used as part of our recently redesigned language access framework, which aims to achieve accountability, awareness, and cost-effectiveness in language access during these challenging times.

Negotiate Contract Costs
In order to negotiate the best price possible, it is important to know the market for which you are contracting for language services. We conducted a cost comparison of telephone interpretation contracts for a neighboring jurisdiction with similar demographics and found that our county was paying 13 to 33 cents more per minute for each call. Despite the fact that we used a different contractor than the neighboring jurisdiction, we were able to negotiate down our price per call to match the prices paid by the neighboring jurisdiction. The non-technical Spanish language interpretation rate has dropped by 33 cents a minute, and technical or non- Spanish language interpretation is down by 13 cents a minute. At the current volume of usage, Montgomery County can expect to save tens of thousands of dollars starting in fiscal year (FY)2011.

Hire Bilingual Employees
Bilingual staff is one of the most important language resources an organization can use for cost-effective language services. In Montgomery County, full-time employees who pass language tests receive a pay differential and are expected to make their best efforts to assist other employees and departments when asked, in addition to using their language skills on their own jobs. Based upon the telephone interpretation usage data of the past couple of years, we decided to certify the top six most used languages: Spanish, Chinese, French, Korean, Vietnamese, and Amharic, which account for 98 percent of all telephone interpretation needs.

Conduct Staff-Led Training
Training by staff instead of a contractor can save costs while increasing flexibility. Montgomery County had initially contracted with an outside organization to train county employees on working with LEPs. By moving training responsibilities in-house, we saved on contract costs and were also able to increase the frequency of classes and tailor the classes to different departments’ unique needs. As a result, the number of staff and managers trained jumped from 178 in FY 2009 to 488 in FY2010, a 174 percent increase.

Digitize Different Forms of Data
Centralizing and digitizing information into public and private databases can lower translation and printing costs and avoid duplication of efforts across lines of government.

  • To provide a one-stop resource for county staff and the public, we created a new website ( that contains an archive of translated documents submitted by the county’s various agencies.
  • Further, we automated translation of basic public documents in the top five most spoken languages. While automated translation is not used for any county documents that are actively distributed (such as print publications or media releases), it can be a practical and efficient tool to communicate basic content on over 26,000 pages on the county government’s website.
  • Internally, we also redesigned a bilingual employees database in order to make it more user-friendly and efficient for county staff seeking to locate bilingual employees for assistance. This has enabled the county to cut down on the need to rely on contracted service providers.

Share Resources 
Sharing resources across government agencies can save time and money. Departments and agencies can use existing contracts from other agencies for language services. In Montgomery County, the police department is the lead agency for the telephone interpretation contract and negotiates rates on behalf of all other agencies that use telephone interpretation under this contract.

Leverage Community Resources
Engaging with community organizations can be an effective strategy for providing alternative translation and interpretation services free of charge. Montgomery County runs a Volunteer Language Bank that provides free language services to both registered nonprofits and public agencies as a supplemental service. The county government also taps into community in-language media and service providers to distribute translated materials to maximize exposure and save printing costs.

Related documents:

Montgomery County, Maryland. 2010. Annual Report on Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Policy Implementation. [download]