When I think about the future of immigrant and refugee-services in Canada, there are a number of people I always want to talk to. Chris Friesen of ISSofBC is one of them.
He’s well connected and we’ll respected in the sector. Generous with his time. Innovative in his work. Chris always finds time to chat. He’ll take a moment to answer questions in some small research I’m doing. He tells me about things I didn’t know were going on in the sector.
In this interview, I surface the conversations we’ve been having. We talk at what settlement work looks like now, during a pandemic. What are the opportunities the sector needs to seize? What does the funder need to understand? What do we need to understand about the digital divide and digital literacy of the newcomers and communities we serve? And more.
Chris has always looked at the sector as a national project. We can become better at collaborating. We can become better at sharing what works, how we’re innovating, how we’re resilient. He’s a great advocate for the sector on the national stage. And he doesn’t shy away from telling the sector’s main funder how it can make things better for everyone.
I think you’ll find this a fun, interesting, and insightful conversation.
Some of ISSofBC’s recent work and resources:
What follows is an AI-generated transcript using Otter.ai. The transcript has not been edited. It may contain errors and odd sentence breaks and is not a substitute for listening to the audio.
Marco Campana 0:00
Welcome to Episode 17 of the technology and Human Services podcast. In this episode, I'm speaking with Chris Friesen from ISS of VC. Chris and I have spoken a lot of times over the years and I consider him someone who's a go to person when I want to talk about collaboration sharing technology and innovation in the sector. He's led a large settlement team at ISS of BC over the years, moving them towards technology, innovation, and interesting ways to provide settlement work. As we pivot to a suddenly remote reality during COVID-19. I wanted to chat with him about his ideas, comments and recommendations for the sector moving forward. So I was generous with his time. And as you'll hear in this conversation, there's a lot happening at ISS NPC. But Chris also has a very broad vision for the sector and something that's worth everyone paying attention to and spending a little bit of time getting to know, I think you'll find this a really interesting conversation.
Chris Friesen 0:51
My name is Chris Friesen, and the director of settlement services for ISS ABC. I'm also co chair of the national settlement and integration Council and chair of the Canadian immigrant settlement sector Alliance or Sisa. xe.
Marco Campana 1:07
Excellent. Well, welcome. And thank you for joining us to chat a little bit about well, I was gonna say initially the future of settlement work, but we're kind of living it. So I guess, I guess a big that is the big question. We, we've talked for years about what the future looks like. And we're kind of going through some of the right now. So what's your sense of where we're at as a sector and where the opportunities and challenges are around innovation around technology and just around the way we provide service to newcomers?
Chris Friesen 1:33
Yep. I think it really is a game changer. I think COVID-19 has helped to accelerate tech, not technological advancements, that will only continue to grow and have impact on our work as a sector. I think it really has helped to define not only the growing use of technology by immigrants, but also help to define the cohort of newcomers that are digital illiterate, and where technology, advancements within government etc, is leaving them behind. So I think it has helped to provide clarity on where in person services will continue to be needed, but also helped through ongoing experimentation of the impact that technology, creative use of technology can have to enhance our outcomes.
Marco Campana 2:44
Now you've been doing some of that, that experimentation at ISS of BC, can you tell me a little bit about some of the work that that organization has been doing around that for the last few years? And even quite recently?
Chris Friesen 2:54
Sure, yeah. In no particular order. When the irregular arrivals were growing in numbers, we quickly realized that we did not have the staffing resources in place to be able to provide in person services, we were being swamped, and realize that we had to look at service delivery in a very different way, because our current operation was clearly unsustainable. And this led to discussions with colleagues in other parts of the country, including Toronto, who, as I was trying to determine ways that we could you better use technology to help service delivery, I was referred to my colleague in Toronto, Ontario Cali, to an organization back here in Vancouver, that I was not as familiar with Vancouver community network. And this led to the CO creation of newcomer dot info, which is in essence, a two way texting platform. This has been a game changer for us. This has allowed us now to send out text messages, bilingual text messages that we create, and provide real time up to date. information to in this case, refugee claimants with our primary population target, of which we now have over 1200 refugee claimants in the Lower Mainland on our texting platform. And this has been a well received by claimants and it's allowed us you know as policy shift or scams and murder George, that we can quickly send out a timely email. And it allows claimants to ask questions via text to our team that really allows us to address in a more concerted way frequently asked questions, and fine tune our messages help us to deliver workshops in a more effective way based on that. And that has since expanded to other populations within our organization, including all of our link students, all of our government assisted refugees and so forth. And, and we have marketed that tool to our colleagues across the country, as well as innovative way to undertake outreach. You the the most I guess, the most comprehensive thing that we've been up to recently has been a digital transformation marathon I call it This has been a hair polling, premature aging, eight months process that has left us stunned, but survived. Through the development of new track new track is the name that we have given the most comprehensive settlement database that currently exists in the market. Built on a Microsoft dynamic platform. This tailor made software addresses all needs within an immigrant serving agency for all funding sources, all client groups, as well as employers, volunteers, and various funding streams currently under ircc. This will elevate our game.
Chris Friesen 7:06
This will help us to enhance client or customer experience. It will help us to determine through the settlement journey and the progression of newcomers through our agencies to better understand our impact. What is working, what is not working, even though it may have been funded for years and years and years. And like most agencies across Canada, we're no different. We struggled along for many years with up to 15 databases at one time, and spending hundreds of 1000s of dollars of our own funds to fight to take a tailor make time limited solutions that were funder driven, that did not give us the ability to analyze our own client data that we were collecting on behalf of government and reporting to government. So new track is is a game changer. And our intention, and we have offered a number of demos to sector colleagues, our intention is to sell this tool to interested colleagues and and support them to customize it to their local context. This is critically important because with the estimated federal deficit, you know, approaching possibly a $1 trillion and immigration essentially turned upside down. We are going to see as a sector increase under the microphone under the microphone glass. The need to provide more data, more outcomes, more information around funding attribution for funding that we receive and having a strong robust system that allows us to do analytics as well as some artificial intelligence to project needs versus looking behind of what we often do to develop programming will help us to ensure that the funding that we receive we are able to provide the highest level of accountability for it and this will be critically important because looking ahead with the size of the deficit, and, and the dynamics around immigration levels and discussions that are ongoing debates that are ongoing now are really going to shape the next five to 10 years as a result of the covid 19 pandemic. So we need to get our house in order, we need to be able to tell our story. And we need to be able to engage at the highest level to ensure that it is clear for the investments in the services that our agency and sector provide to newcomers that we can clearly report on outcomes. The last thing that we've been involved in most recently, through an SDI ircc, SDI funded proposal program has been the development of a digital literacy curriculum. The issue as we'd found, and many of our colleagues share the same, of course, insights across the country, there is cohorts of newcomers, as I mentioned earlier, that do not have digital literacy skills. They do not have home computers, internet tablets, and other such tools. And it is paramount to us that this cohort of newcomers are supported in various ways to ensure that they are not left behind as increase. technological advancements, and automations are embraced by all sectors of Canadian society, including the Government of Canada.
Chris Friesen 12:02
And so this website with curriculums based on the Canadian language, benchmarks, resources, best practices, is another way that ISS of BC is taking decisive leadership to help the sector address the needs of this particular newcomer population.
Marco Campana 12:35
there's a there's a ton there that I want to unpack, because there's so there's so much interesting stuff going on, you've got the very specific nuance of newcomer info, which is a very specific kind of service intervention. And then the massive undertaking of a CRM, like you said this, this digital marathon, and then something very focused on the real digital divide that exists not just among Canadians, but but amongst newcomers as well. When you look at I like to think about the digital iceberg, right? So you've got newcomer info, you've got new track, but underneath that to get to that place. Can you speak a little bit about your experience of like, what are the capacity issues for agencies to do digital transformation, the skills that are needed at the managerial, the leadership as well as the frontline level? And what's missing in agencies now to be able to do to move forward with that kind of skill set, whether it's new positions upskilling, rescaling what, you know, what, what does that look like as we move forward in trying to meet the needs of what I would call a blended service approach where you've got, you still got the in person, but you're also going to be having the digital and then those who kind of meet in the middle and sometimes access your services in person, sometimes they do it through a digital channel. What kind of transformation does that mean for an organization moving forward and what what's under that iceberg to really make that happen?
Chris Friesen 13:52
I think under that iceberg, we have to understand the uneven capacity within the sector. We are at ISS to BC privileged because we are a large organization that generates our own self financed revenue, that allows us to take risks, to develop and engage in technology in ways that smaller agencies doing extremely important work in their local communities. Could not so I think it begins around capacity around access to technology. And I have raised a numerous times with ircc headquarters, for example, that over the course of the current five year contribution agreements, every piece of technology will have to be replaced. That includes you know, Land, desktop computers, smart boards, you know all an ongoing developments of licensing and etc. and and this where it may exist in some CIA's, most agencies do not have the sufficient funds in place for capital replacements. So that that whole access to the equipment to technology equipment is under that iceberg, and which I don't believe we are spending as much time and attention on. So there is no way that we can can commit compete with the private sector and the rapid embrace and change of technological advancements, and so forth. But we, as a sector in working with newcomers must realize that as newcomers, those that are coming to Canada, increasingly, what I project will be in the future higher levels of economic immigrants who are well wired with technology, it will be up to the sector to ensure relevance of the services and programs that we provide are in place. And so we need to have more dialogue at the national level, this has to be taken out of the province out of community to look at this from a strategic perspective, given these high level trends that are emerging. And, and this means, as you rightly pointed out, this means, you know, a fundamental digital transformation. So not only is it the tools, it's the staff training, it's ensuring that staff have the ability to utilize things like zoom and teams to be able to be confident in that we have seen in our organization in the past two months, the necessity to do training on these platforms. But with those with that training and plan put in place, we have seen amazing creative use of technology. So equipment, training, and resources, we've got to have the resources in place. This means the current investments under ircc, within a contribution agreement, under capital replacements that has to change, we need a broader national approach on this. Because what happens with employers, given the fact that you know, you want to keep a staff in place, or you want to provide a waging adjustment increase, that will ultimately impact your capital replacements as the last possible resort. And what that will do is eventually spiral you out of relevancy with your popularity with your new comer population that is growing in levels of sophistication in the use of technology. So that's what I would, you know, kind of say on
Marco Campana 18:48
those points. Absolutely. Yeah, no, I mean, I think it's interesting to look at the the digital capacity of newcomers. I mean, I think there's definitely obviously a digital divide and a lack of literacy in some cases. But certainly, we see a lot of a lot of newcomers who, who are further ahead than the agencies and don't even access services. And I wonder where digital transformation could lead us in terms of providing service to newcomers who we don't currently reach right now in the sector, which could become a major issue leading forward if there's, you know, given, given what happens post COVID, which with changes in newcomer populations, how do we serve those who are already here who might not even be accessing services, for example?
Chris Friesen 19:28
Absolutely. And also, I think it's going to eventually lead to some very difficult discussions. I don't think you know, whatever the 500 or 750 organizations that currently exist today, will exist in 10 years. I believe as much as organizations are doing a critically important and valuable work in their community. I think we're going to see growing numbers of mergers and dissolve mints, because of an inability to maintain the necessary funding in place, as increased societal pressure is brought to bear on how our tax money is invested. And I think that it we're going to see both at a federal and provincial level, of course, more money being invested into health care and to seniors and education. And with the aging population, it's going to mean less money. And so I think that digital transformation, if you're not engaged in it, unfortunately, you'll be left behind. And this may mean the dissolve of a number of smaller legal entities, separate legal entities that currently exist.
Marco Campana 21:01
That will make for an interesting discussion in the sector. No doubt, I'm sure it's already happening. But it's also an interesting segue for me to talk about sector collaboration, because that's a, that's both a challenge and an ongoing opportunity in terms of talking about innovation, talking about digital translation, and just, you know, service delivery, with or without technology. One of the things there are huge pockets of innovation across the sector, as you've mentioned, it's in it's in the sector's DNA. But half of the time, we don't even know about what's happening in one region that we might be able to learn from and replicate. And I wonder, on the one hand, there's an opportunity now to do more of that, because people are learning so much, we're all experimenting during the pandemic. But at the same time, if there's a if there's a sense that 10 years from now, some agencies may not even exist, is there going to be a fear that if we collaborate, we might even accelerate the end of our agency, because the bigger entities will take our ideas and run with them, for example? So where does collaboration fit right now? And in the future? Do you think in our sector,
Chris Friesen 22:02
I think you know, it, that you raise the number of number of points there. And I think that collaboration, and the development, ongoing development and the reality, that we are all part of a national program, with an understanding that by and large, we're we are delivering services based on national standards, and comparable services, this is the essence of this national settlement budget. But collaboration and competition, you know, is to find line at times. And collaboration really, is dependent, so much on personalities and values. It cannot be forced. And, and so this will have implications, right? And and it really requires confidence, and a high level of understanding as to the importance of collaboration, but it is based on unequal power. It can, unfortunately entrench individuals that indirectly, are still left behind in their own individual silos. Because the world is changing, and the sector is changing so fast. Like why do we have geographic boundaries in RCA? If we're using technology? What does this mean for pre arrival services? So when we can all do it ourselves through technology? We do we need cultural orientation abroad, when we could all do it ourselves. how, you know, why, why can't we start learning, you know, for refugees, particularly opportunities to learn English before they come into a link class. I mean, we're going to see fundamental changes and, and the benefits of technology. I mean, it's not all we have to be, you know, healthy skepticism. But there are growing benefits that I see. That can increase our program offering accessibility. Now we're having discussions in ISS providing services seven day a week. Why can't we offer services outside of eight to four in the evening, all of this accessibility through technology and also through staff needs because they're working from home home schooling, you know, partners are out working well then if you are free on Sundays, Then let's do some programming on Sundays. Or if it's more convenient for you to work from, you know, four to nine at night, Well, then let's, let's offer some workshops, online workshops, and so forth. So it really is putting us, you know, turning us on our heads to really look at what we're doing with fresh eyes to ensure that we are relevant to the clients that continue to access our services.
Marco Campana 25:38
Yeah, I mean, the the outside of ours is really interesting. I mean, I've tracked for years, the number of increasing number of of apps and newcomer centric kind of the networks that are that are out there, that bypass settlement in some cases, whether it's even as simple as a whatsapp group, or have a Facebook group or, or even an app that, um, that you know, an ethnic media group or community has created because technology is just becoming easier and easier that the competition has increased in some ways. There's newer players and actors, right that the civic tech community has come in, ever since sort of the big refugee influxes into Europe to say, oh, maybe we have some solutions and things. So yeah, it sounds like that's having an impact and just how you're thinking as an agency as well around Well, how do we define what service delivery looks like? And what could that look like in the future might be, might be quite different.
Chris Friesen 26:28
Absolutely. And it's also goes to our client base. The other thing that I predict over the next five years is that ircc will expand its program eligibility to include non current ircc eligible clients. It's pretty clear now through COVID, that, you know, international students and temporary foreign workers and seasonal agricultural workers, that we as organizations because of our multilingual, capatch staff capacity, we are being brought in to address client crises and so forth, but we can't report it up to ircc. Some agencies and some provinces may get some provincial funding, wholly inadequate, given the sheer numbers. So I think that this is going to be another game changer within the next five years, is that we will begin to expand some elements not all, I don't see refugee claimants and temporary foreign workers and link classes. But I do see our multilingual settlement programming and offerings available to temporary residents. And let's not forget, I think most sector colleagues, I suspect, as well as Canadians have no idea that when we talk about annual permanent resident landings, that we have no clue that 35% of those landings are already in Canada, through the conversion of temporary residents to permanent residency. So if 35% of the annual target is already in Canada, and has been for years, then then then why shouldn't we provide early intervention? first language support services for some clientele, temporary resident clientele? who cannot get their needs met by a university or an employer?
Marco Campana 28:55
Yeah, those are those are incredible numbers. And I think like, you're right, there's not a lot of knowledge of some of those nuances in the system, even perhaps within the sector. I'm curious, the for me, I've said to a lot of people, when you're looking at Digital Trends, look transformation, initially, it's more resources rather than less to build it up. But also, the more successful you are, the more resources you'll actually need in order to run it. Because, you know, beyond the promise of AI, the reality is, is that digital services are run by people. And the more successful the more access you're able to provide. And if these eligibility requirements start to disappear, that means even more potential clients that someone can serve. And while you can scale some of that up with technology, I wonder, does that's going to mean a need for more investment into the sector at a time when, as you say, post post pandemic? There might be some belt tightening That happens a little bit so I'm wondering what what you think that landscape will look like because the investment potential and the return on it we know in the sector investing in newcomers returns greatly to the to the country But how would what would that look like, especially if eligibility starts to increase and expand, it'll,
Chris Friesen 30:05
it allows us and will stimulate, I think, greater strategic partnership with the private sector. And I think this is happening, but nowhere near enough. Mm hmm. We're seeing traditional funding sources, you know, such as United Way and private foundations that are being sidelined increasingly by private sector companies with their own philanthropic funds that they are giving out to whoever they want. So whereas in the past, you had all of these private sector companies, you know, fundraising for the typical United Way campaign, I think the private sector and strategic partnership area is, is is one that is going to grow. I'll give you one example in the infancy new track built on the Microsoft dynamic platform? Well, I didn't we didn't realize until in less than a month ago, that this is a strategic objective of Microsoft is to expand the use of its tech, dynamic platform into the not for profit and social service sector. But all of a sudden, now we are having discussions on the basis of what we created on their platform of how we might work together to promote this and highlight this tool for the joint benefit financial joint benefits of supporting them in their strategic goal of expansion beyond for profit business. And, and also, you know, perhaps lead to new possibilities and joint partnership with Microsoft based on what we created on their platform.
Marco Campana 32:21
That's interesting. And I've seen that as well, I think access employment in Toronto, they've had money from TD as well as Accenture, to expand on their platform as well as now developing some AI solutions for for employment. And part of it is it's just a simple reminder of just what kind of investments are needed. But But yeah, they're not necessarily coming from the traditional funders. So that will be really interesting in terms of the sector lay of the land as well, if especially if if there's more consolidation amongst agencies, for sure.
Chris Friesen 32:54
Yeah. So I think that, yeah, there's going to be opportunities, I believe, for more strategic partnerships beyond traditional thought partnership sources.
Unknown Speaker 33:10
Chris Friesen 33:12
you know, because even though we've gone through this horrific period with COVID-19, eventually, you know, there will be a realignment and an increased acceleration of immigration and the importance of immigration on Canadian society and the economy. So this will, this will create greater competition for market share. I mean, look at universities, they'd become, in my opinion, they'd become settlement agencies. Right. And, and so your ability as a not for profit, to be able to compete means that you're going to have to have some of the foundational tools in which to articulate your own outcome and impact. So that's where new track as an example, become such critically important asset of which, you know, we could say we develop it and you know, forget the rest. But we've also seen it though, so cigi, Klee, around the importance to enhance the sector, and the ability to provide opportunities to those that are interested who don't have the resources, because of the uneven capacity, but are still going to need to, to jump on board. that this would be an opportunity to help create somewhat of a level playing field when it comes to database and and Data Analysis capacity.
Marco Campana 35:03
Absolutely. I mean, I look at new truck as something that's so important because the sector collects so much information and data about its clients. But it's used really just to report up and there's not a lot of analysis or, or measurement of that data in order to to to inform service delivery, creation of new services, understanding the clients better and better. So certainly, that's an area that the sector needs capacity in, but even just having a project like new truck can can leapfrog them forward and doing some of that for sure. And it's also
Chris Friesen 35:33
and this goes back to that corporate partnerships or teaching partnership. Another quick example of that is our work with TELUS. So we worked with Tallis because we saw, you know, connected to the text messaging. The fact that newcomers, you know, that's one of their top things is getting a cell phone as quickly as possible or a SIM card update. So we wanted to explore with TELUS this notion of, of having a welcome to Canada communication bundle. No, but no telecommunication is focusing on newcomers. So we jointly developed a survey. And, and, and we ran it through our our link classes, students. It, it was a mind blower for TELUS. They had they had no clue. Really?
Marco Campana 36:39
Chris Friesen 36:40
aleut Lee, no clue. The, you know, permanent residence, and we had over I think, 1400 response. Not a clue.
Marco Campana 36:55
And is that created a shift in anything for them?
Chris Friesen 36:58
Absolutely, it has. Absolutely. And it has for us that this partnership, so that we are, for example, now have been piloting for over a year now, what's called mobility for good and internet for good. So we're providing refurbish cell phones to guards and providing low cost data packages. As well as two free years of home internet.
Marco Campana 37:32
That's a huge way to address the digital divide right out of the gate for them. That's amazing.
Chris Friesen 37:37
And it's and you know, so it's a win for our clients and what we're trying to do and is a massive win because they can promote it as part of their social impact.
Marco Campana 37:49
Yeah, the ultimate Win win. I love it. So what's some, I mean, there's gonna be some folks listening who are like, Oh, my God, I don't even know where to get started with this stuff. And that sounds all sounds amazing. What advice would you give to your peers, other leaders in the sector, regardless of the size of the organization, have steps that they need to be taking now to start that forward looking move towards innovation, digital transformation, just sector realignment?
Chris Friesen 38:14
I think they've already done it. They've already started it inadvertently. And and as a result of COVID-19 many folks have been wanting to do you know, embrace technology and explore creative uses of technology, while COVID has helped to accelerate that. And those that were reluctant, you, you know, it they were kicking and screaming, and now they've embraced it. And so we're well on track now. So it's how do you build and understand the impact of what you've developed? ISS NBC is launching in 10 days a multilingual client survey on our online telephone services. To better understand the impact of the provision of online services and visa V in person. We understand that there will be a cohort of clients that will not be able to complete this survey online survey. But we're using telephone survey to complement this piece. But I think we've got to uh, my advice would be as you are delivering now online link classes and online zoom workshops and so forth, pause and reflect and better understand what your clients students experiences have been. And and to to help inform future direction around these online offerings. That's a key in my mind, that's a key foundational piece. Because there, you're already on your way. The other thing that, you know, that is, I would suggest, and we've talked about this before, there is incredible innovation happening, products that are being developed apps that are being released. But there's no national space, we need a National Space, to have these discussions that like the one we're having now, to be able to get out of our box to be able to get out of our, you know, our funded agency silo, and to really have horizontal discussions around how we can support each other in a safe way to help all of us elevate our game, as it pertains to the realization that our clients access and use of technology, and needs are changing. And, and I think that's, you know, that's where we need to find the right platform. Is it the O kazi community of practice? Is it a national, you know, working group with ircc with a specific mandate isn't driven just within the sector. We need to have these types of discussions, you know, initially with key folks and land somewhere, that we can then create the space to, to be able to share our successes, our fears, our pitfalls, because it is only through, you know, collaborative sharing, and learning that we can ultimately, as a sector in Canada, be able to increase the the impact of our work with newcomers,
Marco Campana 42:22
those sound like some great calls to action. So every agency right now needs to take some time to learn and reflect on what they're doing in their experience. And really, crucially, as you mentioned, take the time to understand their clients, let's really, whether it's a survey like you're doing, which sounds incredible and be really insightful, take the time to figure out what's working, what's not working for clients and what they need. And then let's, let's elevate this outside of our boxes in our bubbles into something more national, something more collaborative, where we start to share this, this this conversation, these resources, these ideas, these experiences with each other and move the sector forward.
Chris Friesen 42:57
And not only the client survey, but we've also done in the last month, a staff survey. You got to have both internally, you got to understand your clients and their confidence or ability or access to these tote tools. But we also have to understand that from a staff perspective, how confident Do they have the equipment in place? What sort of training do they need, or would like in order to bring these two components together, both staff and clients. But I have found that even with staff that had considerable hesitations around technology, that with the right supports and training in place, they have quickly seen the benefits for some not all clients, but for some clients the benefits of the use of, you know, technology through the offerings of their services and programs.
Marco Campana 44:08
That's great. Well, thank you, Chris. I really appreciate you taking the time to provide your experience and all the interesting stuff that you're doing at ISS of BC as well. I really hope that we can move this conversation forward as a sector. I think this is a really good time to be able to do that. So I appreciate those calls to action as well. Thank you for that. Yeah,
Chris Friesen 44:26
Marco Campana 44:27
Thanks so much for listening. I hope you found this episode interesting and useful for you and your work. You can find more podcast episodes, wherever you listen to your podcasts are also on my firstname.lastname@example.org I appreciate you listening and if you have any tips, suggestions, ideas or want to be interviewed or know someone who wants to be interviewed, please drop me a line through my website, or email@example.com Thanks again.
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