Report 99110 Summary - November 1999

Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act:

State and Local Governments Could Do More to Address Their Clients' Needs for Bilingual Services


Some state agencies have not fully complied with certain provisions of the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act (act); therefore, they cannot ensure that they provide equitable services to people who require bilingual assistance. The act requires that, when state and local agencies serve a "substantial number of non-English-speaking people," they must employ a "sufficient number of qualified bilingual staff in public contact positions" and translate documents explaining available services into their clients' languages. Although state agencies provide bilingual services, 8 of the 10 state agencies we audited have not established procedures to regularly assess their need to provide such services to their clients. They base their assessments on the results of a language survey conducted more than three years ago. While the results of the survey may have identified the agencies' needs at the time, they may not accurately reflect the agencies' current need to provide bilingual services.

In addition, most state agencies we audited were not aware of their responsibility to translate materials explaining services into languages spoken by a substantial number of the people they serve. Only 2 of the 10 agencies we audited were aware of this requirement. Moreover, only 1 agency translates these materials into the languages of those individuals who make up 5 percent or more of the population it serves, as the act requires.

The State Personnel Board (SPB) could do more to fulfill its responsibilities under the act. It compiles data that state agencies collect from field offices throughout the state and prepares a report for the Legislature, but it does not fully analyze and process this information. Furthermore, the SPB report does not clearly present the state agencies' ability to meet the language needs of clients in their field offices.

The SPB also could provide better technical assistance when statewide language surveys are conducted. For example, it receives corrective action plans from state agencies that have identified bilingual staffing deficiencies, but it neither evaluates the adequacy of these plans nor follows up on their implementation.

Although local agencies must adhere to the act, they have discretion in defining a "substantial number of non-English-speaking people" and the extent of bilingual services they will provide. We surveyed administrators and department managers in 50 cities and counties throughout California to determine the types of bilingual services local agencies offer and the languages in which they provide services. Most use a variety of resources, including staff, interpreters, and translated pamphlets and brochures that explain the available services. However, we found that 53 city and county departments have identified a need to provide bilingual staff and translated materials in 33 languages, yet they do not offer any bilingual services for 19 of these languages and provide only limited services for the remaining 14 languages.

Although these local agencies are exercising their discretion allowed under the act, their bilingual services may not be meeting their clients' language needs. Furthermore, because some departments are not providing necessary bilingual services, some clients may not be receiving government services to which they are entitled.

Our survey also revealed that the extent of bilingual services varies widely among cities and counties and even among different departments in those cities and counties. Nearly all departments in our sample are responsible for developing their own policies, assessing the need to provide bilingual services, and identifying the type of services they will provide. Most department managers also reported that they often base their assessment of their clients' bilingual needs on informal observations made by staff about the languages their clients speak. Moreover, two-thirds of the administrators and department managers reported that they assess the need to provide bilingual services "when needed" or that their assessments are "ongoing" rather than at specific periodic intervals.

Most respondents reported that they recruit bilingual individuals for positions that have contact with the general public. Fewer reported that they train their employees on technical terms, procedures, and other resources that are available to non-English-speaking clients. Only a few administrators and department managers indicated they have received complaints about a lack of bilingual staff or translated documents.

Finally, we found that health departments have more extensive bilingual resources and services than do other departments. County health departments are more likely than other departments to assess the need for bilingual services on a regular basis, recognize the need for a greater number of languages, and have a wider array of resources to meet those needs. Still, we found that health departments can make improvements, such as translating materials explaining available services into the languages of clients who do not speak English.


State agencies should become more proactive in implementing certain provisions of the act. They should develop procedures to conduct their own periodic assessment of their clients' language needs, rather than relying on the biennial language survey. Further, each state agency should delegate the responsibility for monitoring its compliance with the act and implementing its corrective action plans to a specific unit or employee on a continuous basis.

The SPB should perform these activities, as the act requires:

  • Inform state agencies that the act requires translation of certain publications into the language spoken by a substantial number of the people they serve.

  • Ensure that state agencies report all information they collect during the biennial surveys, including expected vacancies in public contact positions for the coming year.
The SPB also should assist state agencies in implementing the act by assuming a leadership role and conducting some activities that, while not specifically required, could improve the performance of state agencies and the overall quality of the State's bilingual program. Specifically, the SPB should:
  • Inform state agencies that they are required to comply with the act even when statewide language surveys are not conducted.

  • Establish practices for evaluating the adequacy of corrective action plans and for monitoring their implementation.

  • Revise its training program for survey coordinators to include guidance on how to identify all provisions of the act that apply to state agencies.

  • Revise the format of the statewide language survey report to include additional information that would present a more representative picture of the bilingual resources available at each agency.

  • Revise the contents of the statewide language survey report to present information in a more useful way.

  • Serve as a resource coordinator for state agencies.
To ensure that their constituents who do not speak English receive information about the services they provide, local agencies should consider translating materials explaining available services into the languages spoken by a substantial number of their clients.

To more fully assess their clients' language needs, local agencies should consider using formal assessment methods to track the languages their clients speak and consider assessing the needs on a regular basis.

To ensure that complaints about a lack of bilingual staffing and translated materials are addressed, local agencies should consider developing and using formal complaint processes.


The SPB and four of the state agencies we audited generally concurred with our conclusions and recommendations. The California Highway Patrol and the California Environmental Protection Agency also generally concurred with our conclusions but offered clarifying information. The remaining five agencies chose not to respond to the audit.