Implementing Bilingual — Use the damn Telephone!

One of the most real complaints by Tamil-speaking civillians in Sri Lanka is that they cannot speak in their own language when communicating with government officials including policemen and security personnel. 

Writing for his “Choices” column at LBO, Rohan Samarijiva offers a simple and a simply brilliant idea for implementing bilingual (hell, even trilingual) communication in Sri Lanka — Using a call centre as a translation service.  Here’s a choice excerpt,

We simply do not have enough bilingual government servants, even though we have more people working for government, per capita, than any place on the planet. Mr Lionel Fernando tried to solve this problem; Mr D.E.W. Gunasekera is still at it. But the evidence is clear. Conventional approaches are not working.

The solution is staring us in the face. The ubiquitous telephone.

With just a little tweaking of the 1919 Government Information Center, we can enable any citizen anywhere to speak to any government servant in any official language of his choice. Even today, 1919 is one place in government where questions are answered in all three official languages, politely. Why not just extend it into a full-fledged government interpretation service?

If anyone has trouble communicating with a government official, all she would have to do is dial 1919. Ideally this would be a free call. Even if not, it’s better than what we now have. All sorts of bells and whistles can be built in starting with simple conference calling, so that there’d be no need to pass the phone from ear to ear.

Does the government official have to be at her desk? No. Mobile phones work everywhere. You can call from a check point. You can call from the middle of Yala. Will this be limited to the rich? Oh no. LIRNEasia research shows that by October 2008, over 70 percent of households at the bottom of the pyramid (defined as socio-economic classifications D and E, corresponding to households earning less than USD 2 a day) in the country, excluding the North and the East, have some kind of phone. If that is the case for those with the least income, it has to be higher for those at the top of the pyramid.

If someone wants to be picky, they can start a rent-a-phone service. Rent-a-phone is easier than rent-a-neighbor. But there really is no need.

How long would it take to offer anytime, anywhere interpretation services? Weeks, not months. The private company currently operating the 1919 center can be asked to go 24/7 and increase the number of calls that can be handled at any given time. Improve the connectivity of government offices. All very cheap: telecom is the only thing going down in prices these days. But note, you need to buy from the cheapest supplier.

Find bilingual speakers and add them to the current team; take them out of government offices if need be. Accelerate the development of the databases currently used to provide information to callers so that some calls can be handled without connecting back to the government office at all.

Use the built-in capabilities of call centers, analyze the sources, types and times of calls that come in and use that data not only to improve the services from 1919, but also from the physical interfaces of government.

Start using mobile payments. Conference calling. MMS. Imagination is the limit.

Yesterday, the former LTTE  colnel Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna was sworn in as the Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation.  This might be a good project for the minister to push for.

The entire column is at the LBO site.



Posted on 03/10/2009, in Events-Activities-Announcements, Peace-Conflict-Governance, Sri Lanka and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is an extremely good idea. I think it should be implemented ASAP! It would really do worlds of good to those unfortunate people who have to go through the whole system, having to deal with the fact that the government servants cannot cater to their needs, because of the inability to understand other languages. It might even help develop Sri Lanka in the long run!

  2. I discovered your blog when I was looking for something entirely different, but this post was on the first page of Yahoo your website must be so popular! Continue the awesome job!

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