In the Settlement Sector and Technology Task Group report we made a recommendation that I want to focus on. In part because during a recent project it became clear just how important this recommendation will be to the future of digital transformation in the Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector.
Recommendation 3: Establish a hybrid service delivery lead at IRCC
Why is this important?
Establishing a hybrid service delivery lead at IRCC represents an important shift in mindset. Currently in the Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector we're talking a lot about our inevitable shift to hybrid service delivery. It makes sense to talk about it differently because it is different right now. We're learning and adjusting, and new and different investments, job descriptions, hiring & onboarding practices, staff competencies, organizational capacities, etc., have to be studied, evaluated, and implemented. But in the not too distant future we'll be talking about Settlement Services and it will mean everything we do. Not a focus on how we do it (i.e. tech-mediated vs in-person, synchronous vs asynchronous, etc.).
Eventually that mindset needs to absolutely permeate IRCC. Every Program Officer needs to be digitally literate and fluent. Not simply in their own capacities, but in the way they approach and manage funding and funding relationships.
The next few years are going to be pivotal for our sector. And IRCC needs to get it right. That means internal capacity building and leadership.
Do we have models for this in our sector? Yes we do. Just recently I saw this in an email to service providers: "IRCC’s Settlement Network has shared guidance on settlement services for Ukrainian temporary residents, with Program Officers. SPOs are encouraged to reach out to their respective Program Officers should they have any questions relating to this subject."
Imagine this for digital literacy and transformation? A digitally literate and supported group of Program Officers! Guidance provided to Program Officers so they can consistently evaluate digital transformation requests and funding in the sector? It's exactly where we need to be.
The fact is, when it is important enough, IRCC is able to adjust. That’s why there is an Afghanistan Settlement Branch and a national strategy to deal with that huge task. It’s why IRCC could pivot quickly to respond to the war in Ukraine and build a national strategy with never before seen flexibility and support to non-Permanent Residents (precedent, anyone? But that's for another article...).
The point is, when it's deemed important enough, resources can be re-allocated, even if only temporarily.
And this is important enough. It's a re-visioning of the entire way the sector is funded and how it provides services and serves Newcomers.
How we can help IRCC help itself
When we’re looking at the current reality and things to work on over the next couple of years and beyond, there are a few things that come to mind. We can do better at sharing and learning from each other. As individuals and organizations we need to look at wellness as a priority in our work, including ensuring work/life boundaries and building in time for reflection and learning. Remote work policies are being built by many organizations, alone, individually, and we should be sharing what we’re working on to build sector policies that can be personalized within organizations. But those with resources to build these policies and frameworks can share them with others in the sector. We should be having this conversation.
Expanding service eligibility in IRCC services is a longstanding conversation, and challenge. As we increasingly see pathways to permanence from temporary immigration statuses it makes sense to start figuring out how to serve, inform, and orient those Newcomers who want to move along those pathways, sooner in their journey, rather than later. Technology can play a role here.
Through all of this we are embracing digital transformation in our organizations, which means organizational and sector culture change. That’s not easy, but if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we can do anything.
The final challenge affects everything, from aspirational to practical. The inevitable post pandemic budget crunch, the great belt tightening, will come. And we need to be ready for it. We need to be able to make the case, provide the evidence, build the business case to show IRCC and other funders why more investment is the way to go, not less. To build this long term vision of hybrid service delivery, digital transformation, centring and serving Newcomers, clients or not, will require investment. We need to invest in, not ignore our intentions.
IRCC appears receptive to this case
The consistency in their own research and our sector's when it comes to common themes is very clear. What we're not seeing is the essential call for internal resources at IRCC focused on sector funding, relationship and capacity building that match internal investments for their own client service delivery.
IRCC supported the recent formation of the National Steering Committee on Technology, which is an important and immediate first step. However, they need to not only play an observer role, as they currently are, but build in operational integration over time. In essence, the NSCT is pissing in the wind if IRCC is not a serious player on it.
This is important. But, based on conversations with IRCC staff over the past few months, more needs to be done, and this part of the recommendation is key: IRCC should have cross-department coordination and operational leadership status to ensure efforts are incorporated into this work as well as intra- and inter-governmental learning.
Too often individual IRCC staff are providing commentary that is not informed by broader sector operational understanding or a high level of digital literacy. That means that feedback into processes both derail those processes, at the same time as they are inconsistent with other feedback from other IRCC staff in the same or other processes.
What am I trying to say?
Here's the thing.
IRCC is asking the sector to develop a roadmap to digital transformation and hybrid service delivery.
But they're doing it in a silo. While the federal government, including IRCC, is investing heavily in digital transformation, new approaches, new roles, and client service experiments, pilots, and learning, they're not applying that lens to the funding side of the department.
The Client Experience Branch is related to the federal Canadian Digital Service, which exists to help "federal public servants deliver better government services" through coaching and advice, provide technical solutions, and a suite of guides and resources to help public servants implement digital transformation in their work.
You can find the Client Experience Branch here along with it's interesting sounding branches:
and interesting positions as Sr Behavioural Researcher, Usability Researcher, Senior Design Researcher, etc.
In the Office of the Deputy Minister there are some interesting offices that are likely relevant:
and more if you browse around IRCC's various branches and projects.
IRCC's own Digital Platform Modernization and Transformation approach and budget is massive, well invested in, and as practical as it is aspirational. It is a solid indication of the approach and investment needed to make digital transformation happen successfully.
On the other hand, we're asked and the sector is expected to deliver what the IRCC is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in, on the cheap.
At the same time, it's not completely working as it should. Which is why this needs to be a priority.
On their funding side IRCC does not yet have a consistent internal digital literacy baseline, nor vision. IRCC has invested heavily in the digital and communications infrastructure, positions, and approaches on their client side - immigration processing, temporary processing, Citizenship. There has not been a corresponding investment on the other side of the organization. What happens on the funding side of IRCC is fragmented and, ironically, decentralized operationally to empower the whims of funding program officers.
It means that one program officer can be led to understand, or can be convinced, about the need to invest in a baseline operational tool, but another can reject it. No decisions are converted into common, standardized approaches. Which means that TWO YEARS INTO A PANDEMIC WHERE EVERY FUNDED ORGANIZATION WENT FULLY DIGITAL FOR A HUGE CHUNK OF TIME SOME FRONT LINE WORKERS ARE STILL USING THEIR PERSONAL SMARTPHONES TO SERVE CLIENTS.
Yes, this is both an operational inconsistency at the level of the Service Provider, but it also reflects a disconnect at the level of the funder.
Hence the need for a hybrid service delivery lead at IRCC.
It's not sufficiently part of the discussion. But it needs to be.