The Department of Justice (DOJ) is pushing Federal agencies to take further steps to address language barriers in obtaining Federal services including those delivered in digital formats.

The DOJ is committed to addressing linguistic barriers in governmental services that deny individuals a full opportunity to participate in economic, social, and civic life, Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a Nov. 21 memorandum.

It’s been over a decade since the Justice Department pushed for any action by Federal agencies to strengthen their commitment to language access obligations under Executive Order (EO) 13166. The EO – which was signed in August 2000 by President Clinton – affirms the Federal government’s commitment to improve the accessibility of services and to help ensure full participation by individuals with limited English proficiency.

“Although Federal agencies have made significant progress since then, there remains a clear need to further enhance access to multilingual information,” Garland said.

DoJ plans to work with agencies to determine whether they:

  • Can further update their language access policies and plans;
  • Are effectively reaching individuals with limited English proficiency when disseminating information about Federal resources, programs, and services;
  • Have considered updates or modifications to guidance to Federal financial assistance recipients regarding their obligations to provide meaningful language access; and
  • Can adapt their digital communications to welcome individuals with limited English proficiency.

While it’s not a requirement, DoJ is asking agencies to share an update on any progress made to address language barriers within the next 180 days.

DoJ has also worked on some internal efforts recently to break down language barriers by making excerpts of its fiscal year 2022-2026 strategic plan available in five different languages. In addition, the agency has expanded its internal language access team and created a new working group on the topic.

Federal Push For Improving Customer Experience

Improving customer experience in obtaining Federal services has been an ongoing priority for the Federal government for years, well before the White’s House’s customer experience executive order issued last year.

Some agencies have undertaken notable efforts to address language barriers and improve customer experience. For example, last year the IRS created a Spanish language version of some tax forms and made instructions available in English, as well as 20 other languages.

But some Federal agencies continue to struggle in achieving this priority. For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) saw a decline in benefit claims during the coronavirus pandemic – specifically disability claims and claims by vulnerable populations. The culprit for the fall-off in claims is SSA’s inability to accept certain benefit applications online, including those in Spanish, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Beyond language barriers, there is also a push for Federal agencies to deliver excellent, equitable, and secure Federal services and customer experience – priority number two in the President’s Management Agenda with specific goals in reducing burden, addressing inequities and streamlining processes.

However, Federal agencies are still doing a poor job of measuring satisfaction, and they are conspicuously lagging in offering digital services, according to a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

Among the issues affecting Federal agencies’ digital service offerings and the lag in improving customer service is a failure of agencies to completely implement a 2018 law requiring all Federal agencies to make sure their websites are user-friendly and support digital forms.

The 21st Century IDEA Act – signed into law by former President Trump in 2018 – requires that executive agencies transition from paper-based to web-based forms to modernize services that government provides to citizens.

According to the ITIF report, the GAO should investigate agencies’ compliance with requirements in the IDEA Act because the failure to comply with the law negatively impacts customer satisfaction. ITIF argued that “a GAO investigation and corresponding report would highlight these shortcomings and provide agencies with greater incentive to accelerate the adoption of digital services that have been proven to improve overall customer experience.”

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.