Language Access Ordinance Compliance Audit

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an audit to determine whether the City is in compliance with the Language Access Ordinance, Municipal Code of Chicago Chapter 2-40 (Ordinance). The Mayor’s Office of New Americans (ONA) assists departments in their efforts to comply with the Ordinance.

Governmental agencies establish language access policies to provide Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals meaningful access to vital public documents and services. Chicago’s Language Access Ordinance aims to ensure access for the city’s nearly 400,000 LEP residents by requiring departments to take reasonable steps to develop and implement department-specific policies, known as “language access plans.” As such, the purpose of the Ordinance dovetails with the City’s other immigrant-support programs, including its Welcoming City Ordinance and its stated commitment to serving as a “sanctuary city.”

OIG found that the City is not in compliance with the requirements of the Language Access Ordinance. Specifically, ONA has focused its efforts on the seven City departments it deems fully subject to the Ordinance, and has not ensured that the other departments have implemented its requirements to the degree practicable, as mandated under the Ordinance. None of the seven prioritized departments are in full compliance with the Ordinance. Each prioritized department met the requirement to designate a Language Access Coordinator, but only six of the seven submitted language access plans and none did so in a timely manner. Furthermore, no department has met the Ordinance’s requirement of implementing procedures to solicit community comment on language access efforts, and none of the submitted plans undertake the four-factor analysis required by the Ordinance or include provisions for identifying emerging LEP populations. At the time of the audit, only six departments had submitted their required annual compliance plans, which were under review by ONA.

The Ordinance does not define ONA’s responsibilities for ensuring language access compliance beyond collecting departmental compliance plans, and reviewing and summarizing community comments. ONA told OIG it is considering expanding oversight to more departments, but has not set a timeline for this expansion. Most departments may therefore have little incentive to comply with the Ordinance. Incomplete implementation likely impedes LEP individuals from fully accessing City services, thereby undermining the City’s efforts to support immigrant communities. This is an opportune moment for the Mayor’s Office to capitalize on ONA’s lessons learned to date and strengthen the City’s language access implementation efforts.

Specifically, OIG recommends that the Mayor’s Office undertake the following steps:

1. Clarify which requirements in the Ordinance apply to each of the various City departments.
2. Endow ONA or another entity with the power and duty to enforce compliance with the language access requirements in the manner that other cities have done.
3. Inform all departments of their responsibilities under the Ordinance, as well as the resources available to them, such as document translation and interpretation services available through the City’s contract with Language Line, Inc.
4. Share ONA’s templates and other guidance documents with all City departments.
5. Ensure that departments conduct the required four-factor analysis in developing their language access plans.
6. Evaluate departmental performance and identify opportunities for improved language access.
7. Promote accountability and transparency by publicly reporting on departments’ language access services, in the manner that other cities have done.

In response to our audit finding and recommendations, ONA stated that it would re-engage with the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) to identify a “Tier 2” group of departments consisting of all other departments with responsibilities under the Ordinance. ONA agreed to work with these departments to develop language access implementation plans, and provide them with the same resources and guidance provided to the seven departments it previously identified. ONA maintained that it is the responsibility of each department’s management to carry out, comply with, and enforce the requirements of the Ordinance. However, ONA also agreed that it is “critical to consistently evaluate performance and find opportunities for improvement in language access,” and committed to holding quarterly meetings with Language Access Coordinators to discuss priorities and identify areas for improvement. City departments are expected to begin collecting department-specific data in order to complete the required four-factor analysis; ONA will also begin collecting monthly reports from Language Line, Inc. in order to better understand the City’s level of language access demand. Finally, ONA committed to publicly reporting on departments’ language access services through its monthly e-newsletter and website.