Civilian agencies help fuel growth in translation contracts

Government contracts for translation services are on the rise, and the increase is not due solely to defense and security needs, according to a new report from an independent market research firm.

Federal spending on language contracts skyrocketed from nearly $14.9 million in 1990 to more than $1 billion in 2009, Common Sense Advisory found in the report.

The data showed expected growth in language services contracts following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the start of the Iraq war in 2003. But spending took another leap more recently, more than doubling from $453.7 million in 2007 to almost $1.1 billion in 2008, and hovering near that mark in 2009.

A large part of the recent increase was in Defense Department contracts. The Army, for instance, went from spending $260 million on language contracts in 2007 to $834 million in 2008.

Defense agencies were not alone, however.

Domestic communication has become a key issue. Widespread enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs, means agencies are relying more on language contracts to translate documents and serve as interpreters, according to Common Sense Advisory. "We're starting to see more litigation and the Justice Department investigating more complaints on this issue," said Nataly Kelly, senior analyst for the research firm.

Larger immigrant populations also create a civilian need for language services. The Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration have increased spending on such services significantly since 2007. ICE's spending on language contracts grew $5.6 million from 2007 to 2008, for instance, rising from $19.5 million to $25.1 million

The General Services Administration, which offers language services contracts on its schedules, has noticed similar trends. The Pentagon still accounts for the largest part of government spending for language contracts, but civilian agencies might be contributing to recent upticks, according to Tammy Lindsley, business management specialist at GSA. "Defense Department contracts for language services were ramped up when we entered [the Iraq] war, but they have leveled off," she said.

Translation services contracts often are more cost-effective than establishing in-house language programs, according to Kelly. Language contractors can develop fluency in a specific language and maintain it as their core competency, which is much easier than trying to draw from a limited pool of federal employees or attract new hires, she said. GSA also reports that subcontracting has become more frequent, and the use of freelance language service providers is on the rise. Small companies and even individuals are obtaining federal contracts, though the trend is toward bigger agreements.

In 1990, agencies issued just three language contracts worth more than $100,000, the Common Sense Advisory report indicated. By 2009, that had increased to 379. "This may be a growing acknowledgement that communication is necessary to interact with anyone -- be it for defense, diplomacy or foreign policy," Kelly said. "Language services are essential to ensure communication is seamless."

According to Kelly, increases in spending on language contracts could help offset costs in other areas. She used the example of 911 calls. "If a 911 dispatcher can't understand the caller, a lot of times, they just dispatch a police officer to the scene," she said. "A good percentage of those calls are misdials, hang-ups, and non-emergency calls. This is a huge waste of time and resources." With language services, a dispatcher could patch in a translator to handle the call rather than sending police to the scene.

Common Sense Advisory predicted spending on language service contracts will continue to grow during the Obama administration. Despite the ballooning deficit and spending crunch, President Obama's programs for foreign trade, diplomacy and domestic multiculturalism urge the federal government to continue to use translation and interpretation services, the research group noted.

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