(This is the fifth in a series of posts from the Settlement Sector & Technology Task Group's final report: From Silos to Solutions: Toward Sustainable and Equitable Hybrid Service Delivery in the Immigrant & Refugee-Serving Sector in Canada. Over the coming days/weeks, I will be extracting thematic sections from the report and posting them as articles to make them more accessible. In each key theme, we provide an introduction, sector perspectives (from interviews and focus groups), a number of useful tools and practices we have found to help guide our recommendations to help the sector and IRCC develop the themes into practice, and then a list of specific recommendations that are relevant to the theme.)
In the first phase of our work, we captured a number of promising practices that SPOs had implemented to adapt to the changing environment regarding the format of service delivery and organizational operation. The pandemic crisis has opened up some new opportunities as digital strategies have expanded to reach more audiences. We see the progress that has been made by SPOs, which strengthen the capacity of program resilience.
In this process, individual settlement practitioners and SPOs have demonstrated creativity, flexibility, agility, and elasticity to create success, strategies, and implications to conquer challenges, difficulties, and toughness in pandemic times. Digital transformation and adopting the hybrid service delivery model can be unique driving forces to encourage and continue institutional resilience in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector.
Technology access, literacy & infrastructure require investments in training and appropriate hardware as it evolves, and as client use of it changes. The sector uses technology and indeed has a rich history of being innovative with technology; however, there continue to be many challenges to technology implementation in agencies, particularly around service delivery and data, information, and feedback management. To achieve innovation and technology outcomes that will propel the sector forward, investments are needed to build the capacity of sector agencies and their staff.
To most immigrant and refugee-serving programs in Canada, funding is the driving force determining program development and sustainability. In hybrid service delivery, funding is also considered to be one of the most crucial components.
In this section, we revisit participants’ perceptions on funding baseline and implications and analyze some needed endeavour that could be further addressed in the hybrid service delivery model in the context of digital transformation.
Recent suggestions from the sector about government investment in technology are modest, and practical:
IRCC should create a national technology capital replacement budget or mechanism to ensure current service providers have the capacity to continue and expand a hybrid service delivery approach post-COVID-19. We also recommend that IRCC work with the sector to address remote service privacy and confidentiality issues, staff training needs, and other requirements of a hybrid service delivery model.
These suggestions are also ambitious, based on emerging technology, what we have learned and are learning about newcomer use of and preference for self-directed services, and should be considered:
With advancements in technology and the challenges of digital literacy among some newcomer populations settling both in urban and smaller centres, the Government of Canada, settlement sector, and telecommunication companies should explore ways to ensure that newcomers have the capacity to access multilingual information and support online or by phone (e.g., cell phones issued at a low cost to resettled refugees). Imagine the possibilities inherent in a multilingual settlement telephone helpline for an entire province, staffed by trained settlement workers from various providers, who offer over the phone information and orientation and service linking for primarily, but not exclusively, low digital literate newcomers, regardless of their legal status. Imagine recently arrived newcomers being able to call one telephone number to receive the support they need or to link them to their local immigrant and refugee-serving agency.
Governments are at various stages of their innovation capacity. They tend to also be at different stages in their capacity to fund innovation.
“while ensuring all Canadians are digitally connected has never been more important, Canada’s “digital philanthropy” sector is ill-defined when compared to other well-developed philanthropic sectors such as the environment, poverty and public health. The research finds that funding for internet-related projects is limited, complicated, and difficult to access, which leads to competition for resources amongst groups who share the same goals. Study participants also fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will place new pressures on the small number of funders in this area, stretching already thin funding across other needs and priorities.”
AAISA’s Provincial Settlement and Integration Sector Survey 2020 focused on "gaining a better understanding of what technological capacity support agencies in the sector would benefit from. 62% of agencies indicated that training or support to increase their internal technological capacity. This was followed by an interactive service delivery or learning platform (60% of agencies)." Agencies are interested in investments to build their capacity.
Hybrid service delivery contains the notion of options, possibilities, and integration. Funding is crucial to providing different alternatives and potentials to different programs’ needs. Given this context, one respondent highlighted that hybrid service delivery funding implications and endeavour should be ongoing to pinpoint needs and establish trust:
Digital transformation is an ongoing funding for training and support. If we’re going to continue with the online delivery, it’s not a one time shot deal, and it’s finished. But it needs to be a consistent acknowledgement that there’s going to be an online ongoing need for trust, troubleshooting new programming new software. It just needs to be an ongoing funded process. (technology, SPO, focus group)
Considering the changing nature of technology
Funders should recognize that the nature of technology keeps transforming as it is closely related to the cost of digital devices and equipment:
We set a baseline for standards for laptops. And we did this about a year and a half ago. And it was, you know, four Gigs of RAM and it had to have USB three and it had to have a minimum 15.6 inch screen, those kinds of things. Well, guess what, when I went to redo this when we got some more money to buy more mobile equipment, four gigs, Ram is not enough. So if we’re going to set baselines, then we also have to set a process and stick to it whereby those baselines are reviewed on a regular basis because technology is galloping madly off in all directions. (health service, focus group)
It is essential to have governments join the conversation regarding funding implication baseline because of the changing nature of technology and digital divide challenges:
The fact that, especially in technology, IT changes every six months, there’s something new, that has to be sort of built into the equation. But nonetheless, it means that you’ve got a bit of a floating baseline. The challenge I see is one of the critical baselines is uniformity of access to things like infrastructure, internet. Now, that’s not determined by only one government. There are other departments responding to that. So at some point, those departments have to be part of this conversation, to ensure that minimum baseline, I’ve said it before, you can go 11 kilometers outside of our main area, and you have no internet. So unless that’s fixed, we’re always going to struggle with where that common baseline is. (health service, focus group)
Participants indicated the usefulness of considering licence purchasing. Though there are free versions of some essential digital platforms such as Zoom, Survey Monkey, and Eventbrite, there is a solid need to purchase their premium license to help explore engaging approaches with those clients who prefer to be served online:
Funders need to recognize that even with the indirect services, it’s going to require a different kind of investment. So I think that for a long time, we’ve treated technology as sort of nice to have. And, you know, often many of us have been using free flat platforms. The free version of Eventbrite and the free version of Zoom, and the low cost version of SurveyMonkey, I don’t think that’s going to play anymore, I think if we’re going to be doing a lot of this, that they need to recognize that we professional platforms, we’re gonna have to pay for those licenses. And sometimes it’s like multiple licenses, because some of our partners can’t use them, right, because they’re government agencies that can’t use Zoom on their professional license.” (settlement program, SPO, focus group)
Strengthening a hybrid service delivery model
In order to enhance the hybrid service delivery model in digital transformation, some areas can possibly be taken into account. For example, compared to settlement frontline practitioners in some urban cities, SPOs in rural areas are still facing multi-dimensional challenges. Moreover, affordability was considered to be one of the most demanding factors. This concept intersects with clients’ low literacy and working in precarious conditions that complicate finding one single solution to solve this digital marginalization:
The point I would put there that that that affordability should also be looked into as one of the reasons especially given that I work with temporary foreign workers who of course, most of them are low skilled, you know, and then now being able to afford all these because of internet and all that, for them to be provided a service. Whereby before they would just walk into an office without having to incur an extra cost through their phone or through their, the internet that they are using. So, for our organization, affordability is key. (smaller center, focus group)
Investing in Hybrid Service Delivery will require leadership and coordination. NDIA recently released a report that outlines the creation of a government Digital Equity Office needed to “lead cross-sector, cross-departmental, multi-faceted digital inclusion activities that impact the entire state.” Along these lines, a Hybrid Service Delivery lead at IRCC could:
The federal government is investing in technology infrastructure. CRTC’s Broadband Fund provides up to $750 million over 5 years to support projects to build or upgrade access and transport infrastructure to provide fixed and mobile wireless broadband Internet access services in eligible underserved areas of Canada. The Connect to Innovate program is investing $585 million by 2023 and will bring high-speed Internet to 975 rural and remote communities in Canada, including 190 Indigenous communities. There are also provincial government investments in this space. There may be other funds and supports worth exploring as well.
SPOs may be able to participate in funding applications, but it may also be well beyond the scope and capacity of most organizations. There is perhaps an aggregating role IRCC or other sector actors could play here.
Interesting examples of funding dedicated to developing SPOs digital maturity include:
The role that emerging social finance models can play and how they can be expanded to fund innovation in the sector should continue to be explored. The 2016 Social Finance for the Settlement and Integration Sector in Canada Market Assessment Report looked at this question and concluded that the government will continue to have an important role to play in supporting the settlement and integration sector. A social finance approach in the settlement & integration context can leverage new funding sources, improve the sustainability and impact of service provider organizations, and encourage partnerships with the private sector.