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Idea Exchange: Our mutual secured a million language assignments

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Spinning out its interpreting activities into an employee-owned mutual allowed Newham to broaden its services as well as ensuring a secure financial base for the future. Jaimain Patel, managing director of The Language Shop explains how.

The Language Shop Ltd

● Structure: Public service mutual and employee-owned company

● Service sector: Provider of language services to the public sector

● Turnover: £6m per annum

Objectives

● To provide language services to the public sector with a mutual model based on a fully ethical supply chain that maximises social value and outcomes

● To create a business with public sector values and private sector agility

● To reduce costs to the customer while raising standards

● To support local regeneration and employment by delivering accredited training either directly or in partnership with our training providers

● To support public sector organisations to meet equality and inclusion standards, and improve access to services for service users that have

difficulty communicating in English

Outcomes

Delivered more than one million interpreting assignments, provides translation and interpreting services in more than 100 languages and has an annual turnover of £6m

Contact

jaimin.patel@newham.gov.uk

The collapse of Carillion, the difficulties facing the welfare contractor Working Links, and Interserve being put into administration are just a few examples of the challenges the public sector faces when commissioning services. The move by many local authorities from in-house provision to a commissioning-based culture has produced mixed results. On top of that, the language provision industry constantly sees examples of poor quality, exploitation of the supply chain, the use of unqualified interpreters and a lack of genuine investment back into the sector. We felt that the usual methods of commissioning and outsourcing were not ideal and decided to work towards creating an alternative model for our language service.

In 2014, Newham LBC embarked on a project to spin the in-house interpreting service out as a standalone mutual. Our newly formed company started trading in February 2016 and was initially wholly owned by the council as a transitional arrangement. During this time we were able to build up financial resilience by generating a surplus and developing an extensive public sector customer base, which allowed us to put in place all the infrastructure arrangements we would need as a standalone business.

In March 2018, 51% of the company shares were transferred to the Language Shop Employee Trust, making it an employee-owned company. Newham LBC continues to part-own TLS and has been supportive of the changes to the business from the outset.

As a mutual, it was felt we could combine private sector profitability and agility with strong public sector values. We have chosen to be employee-owned, which gives our staff a real say in how the business is run.

We now provide translation and interpreting services such as onsite and remote video/telephone interpreting for the public sector, as well as both spoken language and non-spoken services such as British sign language interpreting, deaf relay interpreters, deaf/blind interpreters, note takers, palantypists, and lip speakers. We are also increasingly supporting NHS trusts to meet the accessible information standard by reproducing information in accessible formats such as Easyread.

Given that we work with service users who are often deaf, blind, visually or hearing impaired, have a cognitive disability or have limited proficiency in English, our work helps our public sector customers to meet their equality and inclusion aims and obligations. This includes the Equality Act 2010 and the Accessible Information Standard 2016.

Over the past two years we have also developed a language quality assurance (LQA) framework designed to ensure that language services suppliers are providing translation and interpreting services that are compliant with the commissioning and contract specification. We are currently delivering the largest such LQA contract in the UK through our work with the Ministry of Justice.

As an Ascentis-recognised training centre, we also offer local residents opportunities to become qualified interpreters and aim to use local linguists, thereby supporting public sector regeneration and employment objectives.

Over the past three years we have supported 72 interpreters to complete a level 3 in community interpreting and a further 44 to complete the diploma in public service interpreting. Many of these interpreters, as a direct result of our investment, have been able to increase their income.

Since spinning out of Newham LBC, there have been many challenges. The cultural change from a service provider focused on budget management and delivery to a limited company operating in a highly competitive landscape has been monumental. We have had to change every aspect of our business.

However, the ability to set our own direction, embed employee engagement and develop a sophisticated back office structure has enabled us to create the governance, operating model and infrastructure to meet the complex needs of our customers. In March 2019, we delivered our one millionth interpreting assignment and continue to regularly provide translation and interpreting services in more than 100 languages and dialects. We now have an annual turnover of £6m.

Our ambition is to continue the work we started in the public sector with greater focus, agility and success as a social enterprise. Over the next 12 months, we aim to further develop our operating model so that we hardcode the sharing of financial returns across our entire supply chain. Targets include 75% of the total fee paid to interpreters, 20% reinvested and 5% retained as profit to ensure resilience.

We want to invest in the leadership skills of all of our staff. We have embarked on a learning and development programme that is normally restricted to senior managers and directors. We have also set aside an allowance for all staff to undertake any training they choose.

We also aim to help our customers optimise the use of language services. We are currently working with one of the biggest NHS trusts in the UK to reduce its interpreting costs by over 30% and improve efficiency.

And we are working with national stakeholders to improve best practice across the sector. We have established a project with the University of East Anglia that will, for the first time, provide evidence-based guidance on the use of videointerpreting. This guidance will be freely shared with the public sector so it can be used to inform local policy and practices.

Becoming a mutual has enabled us to build a brand that we can be proud of, and we hope to continue our mission to deliver social value and better outcomes through our services.

The latest research report, Public Service Mutuals: state of the sector 2019 by SEUK was published in June.The DCMS Mutuals Team whose Mutuals Support Programme 2 is open through June 2019 can support local authorities considering establishing a mutual.

 

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