7. Working together

[Part 7 of my series on language and service design]

I’ve been involved in some way with Welsh language services produced by central Westminster government departments, British government agencies based in Wales, the devolved Welsh Government, local government in Wales, the voluntary sector in Wales, and arms-length bodies based entirely in England. There are other organisations involved in producing services in the languages of Welsh and English: for example, utilities companies like Welsh Water (involved in the recent CDPS session).

From the outside, the extraordinary factor in all this is that none of these organisations talk formally to each other about this very often. There might be people in the UK working on Welsh language versions of the Census, driving services, COVID testing, tax submission, GOV.UK PAY, and refuse collection services, but I have yet to see an occasion where they talk to each other. 

It’s axiomatic that the structure of government does not always aid user focussed service design. The idea I once heard floated of a Wales based unit to manage the Welsh language versions of all services that start from GOV.UK rather than independent Whitehall agencies managing disparate Welsh language services is possibly too utopian to imagine: it would require multiple agencies ceding responsibility. This doesn’t mean that some level of co-operation couldn’t happen and wouldn’t be useful. 

This could be a lot more than a talking shop. One of the most useful tools in testing, iterating and building government services is the GOV.UK design system. Design systems or libraries like this take time and money to maintain, and it’s probably too much to expect any one organisation to maintain a Welsh language version of the GDS design library [1]. But a conglomerate of local, devolved, and central government organisations could easily make a business case for the money that this would save if it was jointly funded. 

This could transform the easy creation of prototypes and the usability of services in the Welsh language. And, like other initiatives in Wales, it could span across the public and private sectors in a way that can’t happen in bigger cultural areas. If you can easily mock up and test a digital service in the language of English but not in the language of Welsh, then any attempt to treat both equally fails from the first step. 

We could also talk about standards. Here is not the time to rehearse my “why can’t we all fork the service standard rather than endlessly reinvent it” talk but there’s an inherent tension when one of the justifications for a Welsh-specific service standard is the Welsh Language, but when this standard won’t apply to some of the biggest services that individuals in Wales will deal with, because they’re provided by central government areas that aren’t devolved. Might it be possible to work across UK government (central and devolved) so that the service standard approach to language is consistent? 

At this point, eight posts into this series, I’ve rehearsed so many war stories from my career that I’ve started to feel like an old man boring people in a pub. There was this one time with a translation, a confrontation and a mutation… I’d much rather use other examples if I could find them, but there’s nowhere I’m aware of that collects case studies about language use online.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a blog to collect examples, and discussion, of language use in service design together? This could easily include examples further afield than the UK: Canada is another country with two official languages, whilst the EU has 24. 

[1] What I’m talking about here is a translation of the library; there are some existing pieces of work on multilingual design recorded on the issues list of the current design system backlog. There’s also an item on the NHS design backlog.

[2] Checking the design system uncovered a link to the dropbox paper version of the old cross-government hackpad on design patterns that I contributed to a number of years ago. I think most of this is out of date by now, with the exception of the final point:

Language does not equal region so never use flags to choose language. One region can have multiple languages.”

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