Government Gains with the City of Seattle

An interview with Peggy Liao, a Language Access Program and Policy Specialist with the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs

In our Government Gains series, we’re talking to dedicated public servants to learn three things about a recent project they’ve worked on that shows what’s possible when people ideate, collaborate, and innovate within government.

For this installment, we spoke with Peggy Liao (she/her), a Language Access Program and Policy Specialist with the City of Seattle. Peggy is with the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), which works on improving the lives of Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities through policies, programs, services, and community engagement. Recently, their Language Access program has incorporated plain language in how city departments communicate with the public. We spoke with her about what made this work challenging—and rewarding.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’re facing?

Picture this: you’re trying to make crucial information accessible to everyone, but the content is so jargon-filled or technical that you feel like you’re reading a different language. It’s a common dilemma in government, where bureaucratic speak reigns supreme. One time, an IT colleague responded with my plain language suggestions with “The reader will not like it if we dumb it down.” This is a mindset and a challenge that we encounter in government. People have a deeply rooted idea of what “official” writing looks like and seek to mimic it to establish their own credibility. It is harmful to keep writing and talking in government jargon and legalese because it prioritizes the needs of the agency over residents’ needs. Plain language is not dumbing down the content. Rather, it is a respectful approach to show that we truly committed to making city government accessible to everyone. 

In 2022, our office’s Language Access team created a centralized system to handle translation projects from across all city departments. With this system, the language access team is positioned to examine English content to make sure it is accessible and suitable for translation. Garbage in, garbage out is as relevant to language access as it is to computer science. This year, we are focusing on transforming technical content into plain language.

How did you approach this challenge and how did you decide which tools to use to solve it?

We have addressed this challenge with a multi-faceted approach:

  • Leveraging technology: Technology became our ally in this battle for clarity. Here’s how:
    • We integrated plain language review processes into our centralized translation system, ensuring that every piece of content was reviewed for readability before being assigned to our translators. 
    • We procured an artificial intelligence (AI) writing assistant tool to help write clearer content. The tool is used to rewrite content at the eighth grade reading level or below, generate summaries, and create bullet points to make it accessible to a wider audience.
    • We started using a machine translation (MT) engine to check translatability. Additionally, MT is widely used by non-English readers when visiting an English website. We work with bilingual staff to check if an MT translates content accurately. If not, it usually indicates that further simplification is needed. 
  • Training and culture shift: We are promoting cultural transformation, ensuring that simplicity and clarity become our guiding principles. Our team offers training to all city employees. 
  • Establishing Standard Operating Procedures: We created Standard Operating Procedures to streamline our efforts while ensuring consistency and efficiency.

Where will the lessons you learned here be applied in the future?

The lessons learned from this endeavor are invaluable and will shape our future plain language review process:

  • User testing: In the future, we’re keen to incorporate user testing to further refine our content. Understanding how our audience interacts with information will be key in maintaining quality and promoting plain language principles across all departments.
  • Intentional communication: Centralizing our translation efforts has taught us the importance of citywide intentional communication and that public-facing city employees should learn about plain language. I will be talking about Seattle’s centralized translation system at the Code for America Summit in May. 
  • Policy power: We are also exploring the possibility of establishing citywide policy similar to Washington State’s plain language executive order signed in November 2023 to cement our commitment to using plain language. 

To learn more about Seattle’s language access work and hear other great stories of collaboration and innovation in government, register for Code for America’s annual Summit—happening May 28–30, 2024, in Oakland, CA.

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