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Tuesday, June 28, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Audit finds bilingual services disorganized

An analysis prepared by the Office of the City Auditor shows that although the city spends $2 million per year on bilingual pay programs, the vast majority of city departments do not collect data on the residents they serve. The audit said that perhaps 85 percent of city departments are unable to identify the people who need those services or understand what their language assistance needs are.

According to the audit, which was released last week at the City Council Audit and Finance Committee meeting, 21 to 25 percent 26 percent or higher of individuals living in District 4 speak English “less than very well” and 16 to 20 percent of individuals living in Districts 1, 2 and 3 also fall into that category. In District 7, 11 to 15 percent of the population does not speak English very well; those numbers are 5 to 10 percent in Districts 5 and 6 and 5 percent and in Districts 8, 9 and 10. This data was prepared by the city demographer based on the American Community Survey data from 2010-2014.

Even though the city has made efforts to provide language assistance services to Austin residents for quite some time, those efforts may not be meeting residents’ needs, according to the audit.

Additionally, while the city spends $2 million per year on bilingual pay programs, what the audit calls “inconsistent oversight” means that various departments have trouble determining whether their employees are providing effective language assistance.

In fact, according to the audit, 75 percent of city departments told auditors that they do not have a language assistance coordinator or a plan to ensure effective services are provided.

The auditors recommended and city staff agreed to establish a stakeholder team, which would include representatives from the city manager’s office, the Law Department, the Human Resources Department, the public safety departments and members of the public. The team would be charged with designing a language access program to meet the needs of those in the Austin community who require language assistance services and ensuring an efficient allocation of resources.

The city currently administers four bilingual pay programs. According to the audit, auditors tested a sample of 25 employees who receive a bilingual stipend. A majority of those employees, the audit said, reported that the department did not monitor their language skills or include language proficiency in their performance reviews. Of those 25 employees, the auditors said that the majority reported using their bilingual skills daily, but three members of the fire department told auditors that they use their bilingual skills rarely.

The audit also suggested that those being paid a bilingual stipend be tested after they passed the initial proficiency test. However, Joya Hayes, interim director of HR, said in a memo that although retesting can be arranged for any reason, “a set timeline for retesting can be costly and does not lend toward an efficient customer service model.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who normally chairs the committee, did not attend the meeting for health reasons but has been a strong advocate for bilingual assistance for Austinites needing such help. The other members of the committee, Council members Ellen Troxclair, Pio Renteria and Leslie Pool, all agreed to accept the audit.

Tovo said Monday that she was encouraged by management from the Public Information Office concurring with the audit’s findings but was less sure about the response from the Human Resources Department.

She said, “As a city, we’ve not had a good understanding of all the languages our people speak,” and mentioned, in particular, the many different Asian languages Austin residents use.

Tovo said she hoped that the city could collaborate with other government agencies as well as the Community Advancement Network to provide better bilingual services for those needing them.

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Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.

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