Language Access:

Selected Agencies Can Improve Services to Limited English Proficient Persons

GAO-10-91: Published: Apr 26, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 26, 2010.

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Executive Order 13166 (August 11, 2000) directs each federal agency to improve access to federal programs and services for persons with limited English proficiency (LEP). Using guidance issued by DOJ, agencies are generally required to develop recipient guidance and/or an LEP plan outlining steps for ensuring that LEP persons can access federal services and programs. As requested, GAO (1) determined which agencies have completed their recipient guidance and LEP plan, (2) assessed the extent to which the selected agencies have implemented the Executive Order consistent with DOJ's guidance, and (3) examined DOJ's and the three selected agencies' efforts to enhance collaboration. GAO analyzed the Executive Order and agencies' recipient guidance and plans posted on LEP.gov; selected the IRS, FEMA, and SBA for this review because of the amount and significance of their interaction with LEP persons; and reviewed documentation of agencies' collaborative efforts to provide access to federal services.

As of February 2010, 22 agencies have completed their recipient guidance. Additionally, DOJ has reported receiving LEP plans from 58 federal agencies. However, the total number of agencies required to complete recipient guidance and an LEP plan cannot be determined because the Executive Order makes agencies responsible for determining the need for guidance and a plan based on their interaction with LEP persons and does not require agencies to report on the results of their determination. Consequently, some agencies may determine that drafting a recipient guidance or an LEP plan is not necessary. Further, although the Executive Order requires agencies to make recipient guidance public, the same requirement does not exist for plans. DOJ's guidance contains four elements for improving access to federal programs and services by LEP persons. IRS has fully addressed each of these elements, while FEMA and SBA have made less progress, as shown in the table below. IRS has centralized its language access services within one office, overseen by an agencywide executive council. Additionally, IRS regularly identifies the LEP populations it serves, administers a variety of targeted language access services, and monitors these services for potential improvements. FEMA has demonstrated agency commitment, identified LEP populations, and delivered services during disasters, but it lacks a structured approach to monitor these services. While SBA is continuing to draft its LEP plan, the agency does not conduct a needs assessment, and provides limited monitoring of services to LEP populations. Among the three agencies GAO reviewed, FEMA collaborates with SBA and IRS to provide LEP persons a centralized location for receiving assistance during a declared disaster. Additionally, these agencies (along with 21 other federal agencies), participate in an Interagency Working Group on LEP issues. GAO identified a potential shared services approach agencies could use for translation and interpretive services.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure access to federal programs and services for LEP populations, as well as to promote greater transparency for LEP stakeholders, the Attorney General should direct the appropriate DOJ officials to issue a letter to the heads of all federal agencies reminding them of their obligations under the Executive Order. Specifically, the letter's content should encourage federal agencies to (1) complete and submit their LEP plans and recipient guidance to DOJ for review and approval, and (2) make their completed LEP plans available to the public.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Executive Order 13166 directs each federal agency to improve access to federal programs and services for persons with limited English proficiency (LEP). Using guidance issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ), agencies are generally required to develop recipient guidance and/or an LEP plan outlining steps for ensuring that LEP persons can access federal services and programs. The Executive Order set a deadline of December 11, 2000 for agencies to develop and implement their LEP plans and to submit their recipient guidance to DOJ for review and approval. Our April 2010 report determined that several federal agencies had not yet met this deadline. As such, our report recommended that DOJ issue a letter to the heads of all the federal agencies reminding them of their obligations under the Executive Order. In response to our recommendation, the Attorney General issued a memorandum on February 17, 2011 asking each federal agency to update their LEP plans by August 17, 2011. The memorandum also asked agencies that have not already done so to issue its recipient guidance by August 17, 2011. Finally, the memorandum encouraged agencies to notify the public, and LEP communities specifically, about the agency's LEP plans.

    Recommendation: To promote more efficient improvements to LEP persons' access across the government, the Attorney General should direct the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights to work with members of the Federal Interagency Working Group on LEP to explore possible sharing of resources and foreign language capabilities. For example, members of the working group may consider leveraging their shared resources to produce routine and frequently used documents needing to be translated in less common foreign languages.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our April 2010 report noted that approximately 24 federal agencies actively participate in the Federal Interagency Working Group on LEP, established in 2002 by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to help foster governmentwide collaboration for serving communities of limited English proficiency (LEP). The working group meets approximately twice a year to discuss topics such as language access services in emergency preparedness and other cross-cutting language access issues. The working group also shares information through informational brochures and videos as well as though its web site, which contains best practices, planning and technical assistance tools, and links to resources on topics such as interpretation, translation, and civil rights. The web site also includes information on Executive Order 13166, a list of links to agency recipient guidance, as well as some of the published LEP plans that agencies have sent to DOJ for review and approval. In additional to these efforts, the working group has begun exploring how agencies might share resources to improve LEP persons' access to federal programs and services. Our prior work has shown that a shared services approach enables agencies to leverage their resources by allowing multiple agencies to use the same service provider to meet a common need rather than each agency individually identifying and managing those services. As such, we recommended that the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights work with members of the Federal Interagency Working Group on LEP to explore possible sharing of resources and foreign language capabilities. For example, members of the working group may consider leveraging their shared resources to produce routine and frequently used documents needing to be translated in less common foreign language. In response to our recommendation, the Attorney General issued a memorandum on February 17, 2011 asking each federal agency to actively participate in the Federal Interagency Working Group?s efforts to develop options to produce high quality and effective translations. For written translations, the memorandum states that agencies collaborate with other agencies to share resources, improve efficiency, standardize federal terminology, and streamline processes for obtaining community feedback on the accuracy and quality of professional translations intended for mass distribution.

    Recommendation: To improve service to LEP populations, the National Taxpayer Advocate should determine whether any potential service improvements could be derived from requiring Low Income Tax Clinics to collect more detailed data on LEP populations they serve.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Executive Order 13166 requires federal agencies to examine how to improve access for persons of limited English proficiency (LEP) to programs, services, and activities conducted by both federal agencies as well as state, local, and regional entities that receive federal financial assistance (a group referred to in the Executive Order as "recipients"). IRS' Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) provides funding to 162 Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITC) that offer tax preparation services to the public, including LEP communities. Our April 2010 report found that although the IRS and the Taxpayer Advocate Service collect data from its funding recipients on the overall number of LEP customers served, reports from the funding recipients that we reviewed did not include details on the specific language groups served or their particular service needs. To improve taxpayer preparation services to LEP persons, our report recommended that the National Taxpayer Advocate determine whether any potential service improvements could be derived from requiring LITCs to collect more detailed data on LEP populations they serve. In response to our recommendation, the National Taxpayer Advocate included a requirement within its revised LITC Grant Application Package and Guidelines (issued on May 31, 2011) that all applicants provide geographic and demographic information, including the number of taxpayers who speak English as a Second Language (ESL). Additionally, the applicant (e.g., LITC) must provide information on the number of ESL taxpayers that reside in the proposed service area and the languages in which the clinic will provide services, and whether interpreters are available. In addition, all applicants must describe the type of ESL outreach and education activities that will be provided, including educational topics to be addressed, the target population for ESL outreach and education services, and the plans for tracking the number of ESL taxpayers served.

    Recommendation: To comply with the Executive Order and provide recipient guidance for DHS's components such as FEMA to follow when assessing the need to provide language access services for their programs, services, and activities, the Secretary of Homeland Security should finalize and issue the department's LEP plan and recipient guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state, local, or regional entities that receive federal funding to provide programs and services may not discriminate based on race, color, or national origin. Executive Order 13166 extends the language access requirements of Title VI to federal agencies that provide programs and services themselves and specifically addresses persons who, as a result of their national origin, are persons of limited English proficiency (LEP). As such, the Executive Order requires federal agencies to prepare plans (referred to as LEP plans) outlining the steps they will take to ensure that eligible LEP persons can access their programs and activities. The Executive Order requires agencies to develop and implement their LEP plans by December 11, 2000. Additionally, federal agencies that provide financial assistance to state, local, or regional programs and services are required to develop guidance (referred to as recipient guidance) that clarifies the obligations under Title VI of funding recipients. The Executive Order instructs agencies to submit their recipient guidance to the Department of Justice for review and approval by December 11, 2000. During the course of our review, we found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had not issued an LEP plan or a recipient guidance. As such, in our April 2010 report on language access issues, we recommend that the Secretary of Homeland Security finalize and issue the department's LEP plan and recipient guidance. In response to our recommendation and in compliance with the Executive Order, DHS issued its LEP plan on February 28, 2011, and its recipient guidance on April 18, 2011.

    Recommendation: To provide more meaningful access for LEP communities, the Administrator of FEMA should develop criteria for determining vital documents needed for translation, and make available general disaster information in the regularly encountered languages.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: To comply with Executive Order 13166, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) translates materials and makes them available to disaster victims based on the languages identified at that disaster or national emergency. In the guidance provided by the Department of Justice (DOJ) on complying with the executive order, agencies are encouraged to provide persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) meaningful access to federal services by translating materials that are "vital" to accessing federal services. DOJ's guidance states that a document (or the information its solicits) is considered vital depending upon the importance of the program, information, or service involved, and the potential consequence to the LEP person if the information in question is not provided accurately or in a timely manner. Although the DOJ guidance acknowledges the difficulty of classifying documents as vital or nonvital, it still encourages agencies to create a plan for consistently determining, over time and across its various activities, what documents are vital to providing meaningful access for the LEP populations they serve. In our April 2010 report on language access issues, we found that FEMA did not necessarily provide the public with general disaster information uniformly in all of the 13 most frequently encountered languages it identified. While FEMA officials cited resource limitations as the reason for this, FEMA's lack of criteria for determining vital materials and the large number of identified languages, could contribute to situations in which FEMA does not provide disaster information uniformly in different languages. According to FEMA officials, FEMA has not established criteria for identifying vital documents because it designates all disaster-related documents as vital. Further, according to its procedures for providing information to LEP persons, FEMA disaster teams are responsible for determining which languages are spoken for each declared county in a disaster and develop a preliminary budget to ensure proper communications with LEP disaster victims and support groups that represent their interests. FEMA also seeks feedback from focus groups and others to understand the impact of their LEP communication efforts. Additionally, FEMA has created and maintains an online resource library for storing commonly used disaster assistance informational material in the most commonly encountered languages. Based on these multiple procedures, FEMA has addressed the intent of the recommendation and therefore it is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To provide more meaningful access for LEP communities, the Administrator of FEMA should develop mechanisms to monitor and evaluate services provided to LEP persons.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Justice's (DOJ) guidelines for implementing Executive Order 13166 encourages agencies to monitor the performance of their efforts to provide meaningful access to federal programs and services to persons with limited English proficiency (LEP). Specifically, the guidance suggests that agencies systematically monitor the effects of their services by receiving stakeholder feedback, ongoing measurement of resources used and program outputs and outcomes achieved, and compliance with civil rights requirements. According to FEMA officials, they use informal feedback from voluntary organizations and community groups following disasters to evaluate FEMA's efforts to meet the needs of LEP persons. Although FEMA has received feedback from these organizations and groups, it does not obtain this information in a structured and consistent manner. Without such a structured feedback process, FEMA is missing an opportunity to collect data that could be used to assess and improve services. Therefore, our April 2010 report recommended FEMA develop mechanisms to monitor and evaluate services provided to LEP persons. On March 10, 2010, FEMA issued a standard operating procedure for serving LEP persons during national emergencies, which included two tools for monitoring and evaluating the services offered to LEP persons. One tool, to be used by field staff, is a questionnaire to gather information from organizations that serve LEP communities for the purpose of creating a database for outreach activities during disaster and non-disaster periods. The tool's objective is to strength FEMA's relationships with these organizations, maintain the communication flow with these organizations and collect input on potential improvements to FEMA's services. The second tool focuses on receiving feedback and evaluating the language services FEMA offers. This tool will request from individuals, families, and organizations feedback about the information they received in other languages, the formats presented and the accuracy of the content provided.

    Recommendation: To provide more meaningful access to LEP populations, the Administrator of SBA should finalize and issue its LEP plan and recipient guidance.

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: Executive Order 13166 requires federal agencies to examine how to improve access for LEP persons to programs, services, and activities conducted by both federal agencies as well as state, local, and regional entities that receive federal financial assistance (a group referred to in the Executive Order as "recipients"). While the Executive Order does not prescribe specific approaches for improving access for LEP persons, it does require federal agencies to develop guidelines (referred to as recipient guidance) that clarify the obligations of state, local, and regional entities. Agencies are also required to prepare LEP plans outlining the steps they will take to ensure that eligible LEP persons can access their programs and activities. In our April 2010 report on language access issues, we determined that SBA had not issued its recipient guidance or LEP plan. SBA officials attributed the delay to several factors, including staff turnover in key positions responsible for developing and approving their LEP plan and recipient guidance as well as a major transformation effort involving SBA's business operations, goals, and staffing arrangements. SBA officials did not provide a specific date for the completion of their LEP plan and recipient guidance. As a result, our report recommended that the SBA Administrator finalize and issue SBA's LEP plan and recipient guidance. In September 2013, a SBA official stated that SBA submitted a draft LEP Plan and recipient guidance to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for approval in 2006. The SBA official stated that DOJ provided SBA suggestions and edits for the LEP plan and recipient guidance. Although SBA's General Counsel reviewed the changes submitted by DOJ, no progress had been made since that time. The SBA official was unsure when the LEP Plan and recipient guidance would be finalized and requested that GAO contact SBA in December 2013 on its status.

    Recommendation: To provide more meaningful access to LEP populations, the Administrator of SBA should complete a comprehensive national needs assessment which should include data from its existing funding recipients on the number of LEP persons served and how they are served.

    Agency Affected: Small Business Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: To help ensure optimal use of resources, DOJ's guidance states that agencies should conduct a needs assessment to identify their LEP customer base and how frequently they interact with LEP persons. Although DOJ's guidance states that such an assessment helps agencies identify appropriate and cost-effective language assistance services, the guidance does not specify how frequently agencies should conduct this assessment. Instead, the guidance gives agencies considerable flexibility in conducting these assessments and only suggests that LEP plans be updated periodically. In our April 2010 report on language access issues, we determined that SBA did not conduct a national needs assessment. SBA officials reported researching the number and characteristics of immigrant business owners; however the agency does not perform a similar analysis for LEP business owners. Additionally, SBA does not systematically collect data on the number of interactions it has with LEP persons from its programs or those conducted by its funding recipients. Although the intake forms for clients participating in funding recipients' programs sometimes will include a field for the LEP business owner?s primary language, SBA does not require this information to be collected or included in quarterly reports prepared by funding recipients. Without being able to identify the size and characteristics of its LEP client base, and without tracking information on the number of LEP clients it serves, SBA may find it difficult to estimate the size, location, and specific needs of the eligible LEP populations, a necessary step to ensure that LEP persons are given equal access to its programs and activities. As such, our report recommended that the SBA Administrator complete a comprehensive national needs assessment which should include data from its existing funding recipients on the number of LEP persons served and how they are served. In September 2013, a SBA official we contacted did not have any information to provide on the status of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In cases when an agency has determined that it is not required to draft recipient guidance or an LEP plan, the Assistant Attorney General should request agencies to report the results of this determination to DOJ.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Executive Order 13166 directs each federal agency to improve access to federal programs and services for persons with limited English proficiency (LEP). Using guidance issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ), agencies are generally required to develop recipient guidance and/or an LEP plan outlining steps for ensuring that LEP persons can access federal services and programs. Under the Executive Order, agencies are responsible for determining whether there is a need to develop recipient guidance based on whether they provide financial assistance to entities that provide federal services to LEP populations. Likewise, agencies are responsible for determining if they must draft LEP plans by assessing whether they have frequent or significant contact with LEP persons. If an agency determines that it is not required to draft recipient guidance, an LEP plan, or both, the agency is not required to report that determination to DOJ. As such, the extent to which agencies are complying with the Executive Order cannot be determined. Therefore, to help ensure that agencies are appropriately focused on the needs of LEP communities, we recommended that in cases when an agency has determined that it is not required to draft recipient guidance or an LEP plan, the Assistant Attorney General should request agencies to report the results of this determination to DOJ. In response to our recommendation, the Attorney General issued a February 17, 2011 memorandum instructing agencies that do not provide federal financial assistance and, therefore, do not need to issue recipient guidance, make a statement of this determination within its LEP plan.

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