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Johnson County exploring language accessibility program
How can people with limited English proficiency access government services?
IOWA CITY — Johnson County is seeking to make county services more easily accessible for residents with limited English proficiency.
The language access program being developed by the county is funded by $50,000 in one-time American Rescue Plan Act dollars. The plan is to continue the program even after the federal funds run out, said Paola Jaramillo Guayara, diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for Johnson County.
There are about 2,193 households in Johnson County with limited English proficiency. The language access program will help these households engage with county government and benefit from county services, Jaramillo Guayara said.
Various departments already are doing this type of work, but the county is looking to address it on a larger, long-term scale so the customer service experience is the same regardless of what service residents are seeking, Jaramillo Guayara said.
Jaramillo Guayara talked with The Gazette about creating a program like this, what the next steps will look like and how residents can get involved.
Q: Where to begin in creating a program like this?
A: Johnson County’s population is and has been changing, which is why it’s important to gather data to “capture the right now” to understand the current language barriers and what the community needs, Jaramillo Guayara said.
The county currently is in that data gathering stage of trying to understand how the community engages with county services, as well as how the county already engages with non-English speakers.
“The interesting part and kind of difficult part is that every department has different needs, and so that's why this first aspect of capturing those needs is super important because what might work for one department might not work for another,” she said.
The county wants to make sure “we are growing and changing with the community's needs,” Jaramillo Guayara said. “As time passes, we really want to integrate language access planning into the fabric of the way the county does business with our community and the way we engage with our community.”
Q: What are county departments already doing to assist non-English speakers?
A: “There are some departments within Johnson County that have already created the mechanisms to try to help support community members that have limited English proficiency, and that's great. We want to understand those and see, are they working? Why are they working? Is it feasible to continue that? Is it feasible for departments that maybe haven't explored that yet to start exploring that?”
Some of the departments already providing language access services are public health and social services.Public health has invested in a third-party company that translates over the phone, Jaramillo Guayara said. Social services has a diverse staff that helps with one-on-one interactions, Jaramillo Guayara said. The department has also translated some of its paperwork.
County employees with different language skill sets might be called upon to assist in various situations, and other departments have also invested in a third-party interpretation solution, Jaramillo Guayara said.
Q: Will there be opportunities for the community to get involved as part of data collection? What will that look like?
A: Jaramillo Guayara said there likely will be community engagement opportunities this summer throughout the county to hear from residents about what they need and also inform them of the services the county now provides.
It will be important to create opportunities where residents to feel welcome and comfortable sharing their experience, Jaramillo Guayara said.
“This summer we think is going to be really crucial part of that community engagement piece,” Jaramillo Guayara said.
Q: Once the data is gathered, what happens next?
A: “The next step after that data collection happens is writing policy. Internally having conversations about what's going to work, what is going to be the expectation … what does language access look like to every department across Johnson County. That's going to take a lot of internal work and conversation because it goes back to finding what is going to work for every department, and it's not a one size fits all situation.”
The goal is to come up with a solution that will allow all county employees to provide great customer service, while also allowing the community to engage with local government, Jaramillo Guayara said.
During the policy step, there will be conversations about what technology might be needed, what materials should be translated and what languages should be part of that.
Then, the next step will be putting the policy into practice and informing employees of expectations and how the system works, Jaramillo Guayara said. This also will include informing the community that the county is providing these services.
“It's all a learning process. We're just really excited to be moving forward and exploring what that policy and practice looks like moving forward.”
Q: What would having this program be successful look like to you?
A: “Having this program look successful is our community having the opportunity to really further and deeply engage with our local government. That we know that our community members feel welcome, they feel heard and understood when they approach any of our county services.”
Jaramillo Guayara added how building trust with residents and decreasing those language barriers will be other measures of success.
Q: What will be needed to continue providing this service after the ARPA money is spent?
A: The ARPA funds for the program are seed money to help with the initial data gathering, developing the policy and putting it into practice, Jaramillo Guayara said. After that, the intention will be to continue funding in the county budget.
“The intent is that because this is going to be so ingrained and streamlined that this will continue forevermore because this is how we choose to conduct business,” Jaramillo Guayara said.
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