Bilingual Interns Assess New York City’s Language Access via Secret Shopper Program

NYC Language Access Secret Shopper Program Releases Data

On May 2, 2024, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Operation released a dataset from its Language Access Secret Shopper Program — a means by which city officials can ascertain the success of local social service agencies in meeting the needs of clients with limited English proficiency (LEP). 

According to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, the LASS program started in 2010, with the goal of evaluating the performance of various social service agencies at about 200 locations throughout New York City.

Interns pose as LEP clients who speak at least one of the top six languages spoken in New York City: Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Russian, [Haitian] Creole, Korean, and Bengali. There are, of course, some outliers, such as French and Arabic speakers, as well as past interns who speak French, Urdu, Dutch, and Hindi.

More specifically, the secret shoppers rate their interactions with staff members, observe whether the location displays posters advising LEP clients of their rights to language services; and what methods of interpretation were offered.

According to the findings dated 2024, interns logged 148 encounters at social services locations where they were able to access such documents and already-translated forms that can help businesses, and agencies, run more smoothly. 

“LASS secret shoppers visit walk-in service centers throughout all of the City’s five boroughs, pretending that they do not speak English and ask for information about the services offered.,” the Mayor’s Office of Operations explains on its website about the program. “As part of their visits, secret shoppers also observe and rate interactions with frontline staff and security, determine the amount and quality of translated signage and documents, and assess the quality of interpretations, all while staying in character,”

Interns had 148 such encounters throughout July 2023. They drew on their own language skills in Arabic (1), French (2), Chinese (30), Russian (35), and Spanish (76). 

In more than half of the visits — 90 out of 148 — facilities had posted large signs informing LEP clients of their language access rights. 

Of particular note is the fact that a significant 17 stores offered secret shoppers interpretation provided courtesy of Google Translate.

The Mayor’s Office of Operations has yet to announce how and when it will move forward with certain initiatives in order to improve language access.