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A 2016 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 21.6% of people age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home. The report continues by stating that 8.6% of the American population would consider themselves as less than proficient English speakers. That’s roughly 25 million people.

As a government organization, when you think about why this matters, you don’t have to go any farther than to think about your purpose: serving all the residents of your community.

Government websites are, or should be, the first place a resident goes when wanting to interact with a service or find information. The website should act as your virtual government building that a resident can engage with at any time, even if your brick-and-mortar building is closed.

Language challenges aside, government websites often have barriers for residents looking to find information, understand information and accomplish tasks online. The average reading level of a U.S. adult is 8th grade. Based on a national benchmark report that OpenCities did with Monsido, a provider of optimized and accessible websites the average city website is written at a college reading level. If you are one of the 8.6% that admittedly is less than proficient at speaking English, it is nearly impossible to interact with your government online. There is a digital equity gap.

Tech innovators rethink the digital experience

Google is doing something to help improve digital equity with Google Translate which allows a web visitor to choose their native tongue in a drop down and Google will auto-transcribe the information. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect solution. For manual translation to be the most effective the web content needs to have a reading level closer to 8th grade, and most city websites are nowhere near that level.

A good example of where Google Translation can go wrong is a recent case with the Virginia Department of Health. Earlier this year their website had an error with Google Translate where it told Spanish speakers that they did not need coronavirus vaccines. Google Translate turned “the vaccine is not required” into “the vaccine is not necessary.” Come to find out that, depending on the context of the text, Google itself cautions the use of Google Translate.

When it comes to providing the correct information to ALL residents, automated translations are not the perfect solution, yet this is the most common option with most web technologies.

OpenCities and Accela are partnered together to provide the Premium Citizen Experience. The goal is to enable online users to quickly find the services they need by interacting with easy-to-understand, actionable content even if they are one of the 8.6%.

How we do this is by allowing web content editors the ability to do inline translation in the content management system (CMS) that will accurately translate the key information into native tongue. Native speakers will know they are not only at the right place on the website, but also know what’s expected of them prior to filling out a permit.

The great thing about the Premium Citizen Experience’s inline translation is that it is not duplicating pages. Typically, when manually creating a page, you have to create a whole new page, but not in the Premium Citizen Experience; instead, you’re only having to make inline edits. This both limits the amount of page sprawl and helps ensure easier content changes because you don’t have to manage in two places.

San Antonio’s strategy for language leadership

Because of the City of San Antonio’s diverse population, it was important for them to provide content on the website in different languages. They never had a process in place for manual translation and defaulted to Google translation even though they knew that wasn’t the best option for their residents.

When they started thinking about overhauling their website, a key feature was a vendor that provided inline translation so that their most critical information could be understood by all. One example of this is their webpage that provides information on COVID-19 vaccinations and the FAQ page.

“With so much content spread across the San Antonio website we needed to be very purposeful with our strategy so the first two areas we are focusing on is to get exposure to every content editor on how to write better for the web and to let data tell us which pages to start on,” said Mario Aguilar Web Design Lead at City of San Antonio.

Through the great work Mario and the City of San Antonio did on their COVID-19 Response and Recovery website, they won a Project Experience Award from the Center for Digital Government.

It doesn’t take a city to be the size of San Antonio to start creating a process for manual translation. It starts with education.

  • First, make sure everyone who touches the website knows the importance of using resident lingo and not city lingo. Using websites like the Hemingway Editor, content editors can check the reading level of their content before publishing.
  • Second, dive into data. Using Google Analytics, prioritize the content and the services on the website with the most views.
  • Lastly, choose vendors that will partner with you on your digital equity initiatives.

OpenCities and Accela work towards having a government that is accessible and equitable. A government where even the 8.6% can access key city services and information at any time and on any device.

If you’re interested in seeing how easy it is to create multilingual content, contact us for a demo.


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