Blog Post

COVID & Access to Settlement Services - the impact of technology on clients and service providers (presentation notes)

At the recent P2P 2021 Conference, I was part of the panel "The COVID Cohort of Immigrants: Tackling Settlement and Employment Challenges." My focus was on discussing the impact of technology on both clients and service providers in the pandemic context.

The session was recorded:

I'm also sharing my notes and slides here.

In my segment I built on my previous presenters, in particular from ACCES Employment, presented about and provide a broader view of the impact of technology on newcomers and service providers during the pandemic.

Sector Digital & Informational Context & Capabilities

What I want to start with is for us to realize the complexity of our own sector. A quick glance at our sector provides a sense of the different and complex contexts we're working in as well as the competencies and capabilities we need. We need to be looking at these with both near and long term future views and perspectives in mind. But it’s important to note that our system was complex before the pandemic and certainly got more complex during it.

In term of a brief timeline of the past almost 2 years, we know some things. Everyone suddenly went online in March 2020. Organizations, newcomers, and communities quickly adapted and were creative with how we all worked to support each other. It was a difficult transition, but early conversations and surveys in the sector suggested that it was working.

What we know

  • March 2020 - everyone and everything went online
  • Agencies adapted, and were creative with how they reached and served newcomers
  • The switch was difficult for many Settlement practitioners and clients
  • However, early on it was working: ‘Almost two-thirds of front-line practitioners have been able to make the switch successfully to remote work. Almost 25% even found themselves surprised to be enjoying this way of working.However, almost one-third found themselves struggling. Among leadership an almost equal number were making the switch to remote work successfully, with 52% finding it challenging but that they have been able to adapt. However, almost one-third found it a big shift, with 21% working longer hours.”

What some people knew, but now we all know, is that there is a digital divide among newcomers. At the same time, many newcomers adjusted to and even preferred digital/remote services. We also knew, but now we all know, our sector has a digital divide. And over this time, we’ve become familiar with new ideas of digital equity, and digital inclusion, which build on and add to our anti-oppression work focused on building equity and inclusion for newcomers. We also know that there is no right way to deliver digital or remote services.

And that’s both great and frustrating.

  • The digital divide is real for newcomers. There is no one persona, digital inclusion and equity are complex. 
  • However, many newcomers are able to access services. Some prefer online/remote. Some do not.
  • The digital divide is real for the sector as well. 
  • We developed a comprehensive understanding of digital equity in our sector.
  • Digital transformation is complex. The sector is unsure of the “right way” to deliver digital/remote services.

Now, when I say we knew about many of these trends, it’s important to realize that there's been a lot of research, in fact, over 20 years of research in our sector focused on technology and innovation. A number of common themes come up consistently. There are unique needs and challenges for different regions just as their unique needs and challenges for different communities and different client groups. The sector is keen to work together on more innovative and collaborative practices. During the pandemic we saw dialogue across the sector and also with with funders leading to innovation. We should build on this moment of trust, collaboration, and coordination. We need to be investing time and resources into building capacity in the sector. The sector is and has been keen on expanding service eligibility to formally serve clients such as international students and temporary foreign workers. Technology can help play a role there. We need to continue to build and implement different funding arrangements that are innovation-focused that allow for testing and experimenting.

IRCC’s Service Delivery Improvement or SDI funding, is a great example of that in the sector. What we hear from the sector is that we need more of that. We need investment in knowledge mobilization, so that we're sharing what's being learned, so we're all figuring out what's working in the sector together. For example, if someone is working on something interesting, others find out about it, to leverage it, bring it into their work, or to replicate it. We know that newcomers have always driven their own settlement, creating community, supports, and services for each other. We know that not all newcomers access services. It's important that we not only encourage newcomer innovation, but understand it as much as possible, so we can support them in their practices, but also help with interventions that might make a difference or even shorten their settlement journey.

Common research themes:

  • There are unique needs and challenges for different regions
  • The sector is keen to work together toward more innovative and collaborative practices
  • The pandemic should be viewed as an enabling condition for innovation and collaboration: it necessitated two-way dialogue between funders and SPOs, leading to adaptive responses to uncertain situations
  • Investing time and resources into increasing digital literacy and capacity across the sector - including newcomers and SPOs - is essential to holistic service delivery moving forward
  • Expand service eligibility to allow SPOs to formally serve clients including foreign students and TFWs
  • Build and implement more innovation-focused, flexible funding arrangements to allow for hypothesis testing and responsive/adaptive programming
  • Invest in knowledge mobilization and professional development resources for sector service providers
  • Empower newcomers to be agents of innovative practices and drivers of their own settlement journeys
  • The sector and newcomers are resilient, innovative, and forward looking.
  • Digital/remote service delivery can work for many, but not all, newcomers

What we've learned recently

During the pandemic a number of projects and research studies have been completed which echo these 20 years of themes and patterns. But we’ve looked with a very current lens to see what is working and what isn’t. The important conclusion is that you will not all simply be going back into your offices to provide in-person services. We’re moving towards a new vision of service delivery.

  • A lot of research, surveys, and consultations looking at the digital shift, client access, etc., have happened over the past 2 years. 
  • The core conclusions are similar - it’s been difficult, but service has continued, and we’ve learned what’s possible in a remote/digital service system. Service and information access has increased in many cases.
  • Some newcomers are waiting/have waited for in-person service to resume. Some staff can’t wait to go back into the office.
  • But, we’re not going back to business as usual.

Where we’re going - Hybrid Service Delivery 

 At our core we’ve always work in, but now we are formally moving towards a hybrid or blended service model. 

Blended learning/teaching requires

  • Thoughtful planning
  • New approaches to service design
  • Pedagogical shifts and skills

This hybrid or blended service model is made up of in-person as well as online or remote service delivery, whether in real time or not. This means really no wrong approach or no wrong door for clients. An accessible model that's flexible and innovative. It means both in-person and digital/remote services, sometimes with the same client. But in some cases you may have fully in-person clients, in others fully virtual. In reality, this isn’t new, you’ve been providing hybrid service delivery for a long time, well before the pandemic. But we have an opportunity to formalize it now. So how do we get there?

Baselines in hybrid service delivery

As we move towards this future, a key thing we need to be talking about is common standards and baselines when it comes to organizational infrastructure approaches and processes as well as competencies for everyone in the sector.

  • Baselining: frameworks for reference of quality digital service delivery
  • Competencies - technologies, infrastructure, digital literacies, digital capacity that all agencies need to have

The future of your job

The future of the frontline worker’s job, comes up a lot in this conversation, and we need to be having that conversation. A lot of it comes up as a point of anxiety. A fear of being replaced by technology. I don’t think your job is at risk. It is evolving. But you are more important than ever before. And, as we look to the future, we can and should drive the change that is happening and ensure it aligns with our sector's core values, as well as the type of work we want to be doing.

  • Your job is not at risk. It will change, but your role is more important than ever before (personalization, misinformation, disinformation, curation, incorporating data into your work, systems/community/tech navigation, etc.)
  • What does that job look like? It's up to us. Define and educate our funders.

New Professional Roles in Settlement Service Delivery

  • A digital coordinator could wear multiple hats and functioned in different roles.
  • A digital lead could identify digital service delivery needs amongst staff and clients. This role should also develop ways to support staff to be engaged in virtual spaces.
  • Digital navigators and specialists could offer customized digital training for both clients and staff.

It is important that settlement workers learn to be substantially knowledgeable about digital devices and platforms and prepare for digital transformation readiness.

What does a digitally mature sector look like?

So what does a digitally mature sector look like? The nice thing is that we don’t have to invent this ourselves.

Nethope, an organization that supports international humanitarian organizations in their digital transformation has created a model for the digital nonprofit that looks at six core areas, people, processes, technology, data, investment, and readiness. If we look at their categories, in our context, some specifics emerge where we are and should be focusing.

This is just my own half baked take on their model and how it might apply to our sector. So take it with a grain of salt. We can start to see what our priorities might be.

So at the core, at the center, is client centric data, creating a seamless client settlement experience journey. When we think about people, we're talking about professional development in our context, building a competencies framework for our work, including knowledge mobilization and transfer. When we're looking at process, we're talking about digital, and data maturity and risk frameworks. Frameworks we can not only build on but learn from, borrow, customize and implement in our sector. Technology, in our case, needs to be tempered with digital inclusion and equity. This needs to align with our sector values of access, anti oppression and inclusion. When we're thinking about readiness, this is where we're talking about those baselines in hybrid service delivery, where we have a common minimum standard or floor of infrastructure and competencies that no agency and no individual should fall below. We can certainly exceed those baselines, and should strive to, but at their core, we all should have access to build those baselines. When it comes to investment, I like to use what Allen Broadbent from the Maytree foundation called the three I’s of immigrant integration: intentionality, instruments and investments. We need to be strategic, we need to be intentional about what we're doing. We need to have the right instruments, tactics, or technologies in order to to address what we’re being intentional about. And we need investments in those instruments and in that strategy in order to make it happen. Data is key to all of that. In this model, I'm putting it at the center, labelled as Client. It's really being client centric, fully understanding our clients and communities, in order to create that seamless client settlement journey. Understanding newcomers makes the technology and service intervention decisions much easier.

Digital Inclusion - addressing digital equity and the digital divide

I mentioned digital inclusion earlier. But it’s a big topic, one that is important to our sector, so we should spend some time on it. Digital Inclusion is something that has really been highlighted in the past almost 2 years during our work on digital transformation. Inclusion and equity have become important challenges. These are not divorced from other challenges of equity & inclusion and must be seen in that broader context.

  • Complex social challenge that require well-planned interventions in hybrid service delivery
  • Digital divide for clients: (1) limited access to digital devices and platforms, (2) low literacy in English or in their own languages, and (3) digital equity also intersects with other equity and social justice issues
  • 5 A’s of technology access: availability, affordability, awareness, ability, agency

Not surprisingly, digital equity is an issue for those dealing with other equity challenges. And in our work, these are the kinds of things that have come up. It's a complex social challenge. And it requires well planned interventions in order to deal with. We've come to a better understanding of what multi dimensional digital inequality is, as well as the fact that we cannot do this alone, as individual agencies. There are systemic issues that exist in our sector, not just with clients, but also within our organizations and for settlement workers. Building inclusion and equity has always required system and organizational change. This is no different when it comes to technology. In most cases, our conversation shouldn't actually start with technology, but how technology might help address and create inclusion and equity.

  • We have come to a better understanding of the multi-dimensions of digital inequality
  • Digital inclusion needs to consider different social and situational contexts 
  • Digital inequality also happens to settlement workers themselves
  • You cannot do this alone.

On innovation

We’ve been talking a lot about innovation in the sector. Too often we hear about disruption when it comes to innovation. The idea that systems need to be broken apart and dismantled. Let's talk about innovation in a way that aligns with our core values. Some people have coined the term constructive innovation instead of disruptive. A building, rather than breaking systems mindset. And this notion already exists in models of community innovation where we build on rather than dismantle community. We identify needs, increase our understanding of the issues to generate ideas to test, and implement solutions that lead to new ways of addressing complex issues. We evaluate and revisit that process over and over again. It's a constant and inclusive process. It's collaborative with the people that we are working with not simply working on. And it's essential that it builds on what the community already has. It includes an asset approach and mindset when looking at the community. 

Innovations and promising practices

As well, it's okay to not just focus solely on big I innovation, the notion of creating something completely new, but also on little I innovation or iteration, refining what might already be working to make it work even better. Centering newcomers and communities in innovation work is essential. Sometimes an iterative approach can lead to something new, or big I innovation. But even if it doesn’t our mindset should be about constant improvement, asking ourselves how we can create better outcomes for our clients and communities.

Innovation: the digital and non-digital practices and approaches that foster the adaptability and agility needed to enable the settlement sector to stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing migration and settlement landscape, with the goal of better serving newcomers to Canada. We note a distinction between innovation: a process of developing something genuinely new; and iteration: a process of refining what is already working to make it even better.

Settlement 3.0 - Innovation is in our DNA (2021)

Centring newcomers & communities

When we’re talking about centring clients and communities in our work, there's really kind of a myth among some funders and others that we don't do this already. And I think in a lot of the historical and most more recent research, we've seen the sector's strong commitment to clients and communities, centering clients, and advocating for them. The ability to always centre clients is more of structural and resource issue more than an attitudinal issue or a sector desire.

  • There is a myth that SPOs do not centre clients in your work. 
  • Of course, we can always do better, and more.
  • In a hybrid service delivery model, there is no wrong door for clients to access services. Accessibility, flexibility, and choice are key.

Funders and the future

All of this innovation and interaction means looking at aligning the future with our funders. During the pandemic, we saw an increase in trust and two way dialogue between funders and SPOs. It's been a unique moment in time. We're all faced with the same crisis. It offers opportunities to learn and move together. So we need to understand that funders are trying to figure this out, too. They're also working in the future of their services. And we don't need to wait for them to lead, but we need to work with them.

Federal Government digital priorities for the next 3 years (2021–2024)

As an example, if we look at the federal government's digital operations strategic plan, their priorities are very much aligned with the hybrid service vision coming out of our sector. This presents another opportunity to work and learn together. They're looking at modernizing their legacy IT systems, which again, speaks to the idea of baseline competencies. They're improving services, focused on the service experience of all clients. They're implementing enterprise level solutions, right? They're trying to get away from silos. Too often, we have silos in our own organizations where one part of an organization uses technology very differently from another. And that doesn't transfer across the organization. For the most part, that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. And with that notion of change management, transforming the institution, we're building, not perhaps a digital first delivery, but a client first delivery. And so as they're building on that, we want to learn from them. But we also want to advocate for the kinds of resources that they're allocating to this work within government to be matched in the sectors that they fund.

Modernize legacy IT systems (Provide modern, reliable and secure networks and infrastructure)

Improve services (Improve the service experience of all clients, Maximize public value of data and information, Build and use secure common solutions for digital service delivery)

Implement enterprise (no silos, Manage and use data and information as strategic assets, Plan and govern for the sustainable and integrated management of service, information, data, IT and cybersecurity, Deploy modern and accessible workplace tools and devices)

Transform the institution (Support fully digital delivery by managing a government-wide culture shift, Build a workforce for digital first delivery)

Digital Operations Strategic Plan: 2021–2024

When we talk about resources, we can help our funders with the three I’s of immigrant integration.

We need to extract, analyze and share what we're doing, what we're learning, including from things that haven't worked, with each other. And with our funder, we need to become more open about sharing. We need to become more confident in sharing. We are doing excellent and interesting work. Mobilizing that kind of knowledge across the sector in formal and informal ways is essential. We have the technology. We have the service models. We have the communities of practice. We are aligned with our sector’s biggest funder. We just need to figure out what comes now and next. Spoiler: I think we have, in fact, done that.

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