Blog Post

What we can learn from what's happening with digital government

By: Marco Campana
January 29, 2020

Earlier this year the I was on a panel at the 21st National Metropolis Conference in Halifax. Our topic was Building a Newcomer-Centric Technology-Enabled Settlement Sector in Canada. I don’t get to these gatherings very often and they’re always a reminder of how much is happening in a very complex sector and how awesome and committed sector folks are. 

I presented a summary of some research work I’ve been doing for a client and thought I’d share my thoughts about how we can harness the digital and forward-thinking work happening in government here. You can read my presentation notes and view my slides on my site

The gist of what my research and conversations suggest about the sector is that we:

  • are both innovative and not
  • have the capacity and don't
  • collaborate and compete
  • collect massive amounts of data and don't analyze it
  • have data and info, but not the time and space to create system-wide knowledge
  • are outputs vs outcomes focused
  • have resources, but also need more
  • have professional development frameworks, but not national or consistent standards across the sector
  • have funders that don’t trust the agencies they fund and funders that collaborate as peers
  • are both tech-literate and not
  • have promising practices, but they’re hidden
  • want to share and learn together, but don't, but really want to
  • are a complex sector serving clients with increasingly complex needs

I know you know all this.

I want to be clear that this is not a new conversation in our sector. The “future of settlement work” is a conversation that is decades old as is the literature that looks at innovation, best/promising/emerging practices and technology. Some people I’ve interviewed expressed frustration. “Every report that we do, from professional development results, from conferences, we do needs assessments, we do final reports, they have all the information. Tell them to go back to their existing reports, read our recommendations, conference reports provided year after year.”

There’s a sense that this conversation happens all the time and things don’t change or change very slowly, but with increasing expectations from the funder that things will change, but without the supports and resources identified by the sector and other actors.

They're not wrong. I've found 20 years of reports looking at innovation, best practices, and technology in our sector that come to very similar conclusions (I'll summarize all of that soon). The literature coming out of the sector indicates that agencies along with their main funder (IRCC) should collaborate on how this innovation can be harnessed consistently across the country. 

This hasn't really happened, except in some pockets here and there. But nothing cross-sectoral in any concerted, consistent, coordinated, or meaningful way.

If we know what the lay of the land is, and we know what assets and resources the sector has, but also the capabilities it needs to develop to achieve the outcomes our clients want, what are the levers for change that will get us there?

There are approaches, promising and emerging practices that we can learn from to help get us there, including from other sectors, but what we need is what Maytree’s Alan Broadbent has called the Three I’s of Integration – Investment, Intentionality and Instruments (jump to page 3). Otherwise, we are building innovation and technology systems on top of a shaky, broken table foundation that’s missing a leg and will collapse with the added weight of innovation and technology-use expectations. It will take resources and some small steps together with funders, clients and communities and in-sector collaboration to get there.

Broadbent has also said after we identify the problems, the hard work is to craft the solutions.

It seems like an uphill battle. But, I’m optimistic!

Why? Why might things change this time?

Because certain things seem to be aligning:

  • Service Delivery Improvement funding – they’re throwing a bunch of new ideas against the wall to see what sticks. The results of these projects will help bring evidence-based information into the Department. The rest of the sector needs to push their evidence as well. Sure, they were supposed to roll out this funding more than once, but at least some. interesting. projects. have. been. funded. Not sure what the knowledge transfer/sharing plans are, but hopeful!
  • The current body of research evidence shows us that the sector has the capacity, but needs the resources. We can get there.
  • Innovation practices and labs are emerging in the sector – LIPs are making collaboration happen in places where it’s been a historical challenge, WoodGreen Community Services Innovation Lab, MCIS Language Solutions, NouLab’s Economic Immigration Lab, SFU’s Radius Refugee Livelihoods Lab, Refugee Career Jumpstart, and many others who have been recently funded that work from this type of experimentation mindset and framework.
  • Then there is innovation in government. All three levels of government have embarked on digital/innovation overhauls of the way they serve the public, with the first common element to think of the client first and have them in mind when creating or revamping anything they do. They have created innovation labs (did you know that IRCC has a Client Experience Branch with multiple teams totalling 66 staff?), developed Digital Service Standards and at the federal level, have created a Digital Academy – “The curriculum offered at the academy will support all levels of public servants in their efforts to modernize operations to deliver the kind of digital services that Canadians expect.”). If they can do it, so can we. The sector wants this. New actors, like innovation labs/civic tech types and newcomers themselves, are going to build it anyway.

This year's CFP had the potential to start this process, especially with its focus on CORE values. From what I've been hearing about newer projects that sought funding and weren't, I'm not terribly optimistic about a sector-wide process.

So, we’ve got 5 years to start taking those small steps together so that when the next CFP rolls around, the way we approach, fund, implement and deliver services can start to look different from how we’re doing it today.

We can do this. A good starting point is a new national Community of Practice that has been developed by our sector's umbrella groups. Check it out, sign up, learn, share, connect, explore, and collaborate.

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