Blog Post

Enabling Innovation in the Immigrant and Refugee-serving Sector

By: Marco Campana
July 26, 2022

(This is one post in a series of posts from the National Steering Committee on Technology's final report: The Future is Now: Strengthening High-Quality, Inclusive and Innovative Hybrid Service Delivery. The post pulls key recommendation sections from the report to make them more accessible. In each key post, I provide an introduction, along with each sub-recommendation narrative and specific recommendations relevant to the sub-recommendation.)

Enabling innovation means that Service Provider Organizations' (SPOs’) skills, commitment, and desire to innovate are supported with a shared innovation mindset, enhanced data skills and use, and continued funding.

Over the last year, we have seen a lot of adaptation, evolution, and innovation from SPOs. It is consistent across all the reports that there is a wealth of expertise, skills, and commitment among the sector, and a strong desire to innovate and bring value to the lives of newcomers. Settlement practitioners are continuously “thinking on the edge of the box”. They innovate with what is available while also searching for further innovation. Because of innovation and promising digital practices, SPOs have been able to maintain service consistency during the pandemic, as stated in NSIC (2021).

To ensure the sustainability of innovation, innovative programs, practices, and services must be incentivized, invested in, and implemented consistently. From newcomers’ perspective, it is only meaningful to forge new pathways in their settlement journey if those pathways constantly bring value to them.

As recommended in AMSSA (2021) and PeaceGeeks (2021), the sector should conduct cross-sector research for promising innovative practices and examples in order to replicate in a way that fits the sector’s needs and realities.

Innovation Mindset

While the sector is experimenting with new ways of designing and delivering service, it is important to remember that the sector has yet to choose an agreed-upon definition of innovation. The reports consistently captured this need and emphasized the importance of establishing sector-wide conversations on developing concepts, vocabularies, and a clear, shared understanding of what innovation is for the settlement sector, what value it brings to hybrid service delivery, and what innovation could look like in practice.

Defining innovation and formally acknowledging innovative practices both have strategic importance for charting the future of innovation within the sector. As NSIC (2021) noted, sector stakeholders have a desire to capitalize on innovation and promising practices that have occurred since the pandemic and moving forward. Having a shared understanding and common conceptual tools will facilitate sectoral conversations around innovation.

PeaceGeeks (2021) highlighted some characteristics of innovative practices, such as:

  • Work that is centered on partnerships and collaboration;
  • Work focused on addressing systemic barriers;
  • Holistic and newcomer-centric approaches, grounded in community, and;
  • Use of technology to facilitate access to services and/or improve service provision for newcomers, whether directly or indirectly.

Phase 1 of PeaceGeeks (2021) Settlement 3.0 project offered a definition of innovation as “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.” The report noted the need to distinguish between innovation (a process of developing something genuinely new) and iteration (a process of refining what is already working to make it even better).

Innovation Mindset Recommendations

Goal: A culture of innovation and ideation is continuously fostered through exposure to new ideas built through a common sector definition of innovation.

Mainstream innovative service design and delivery by:

  • Articulating the definition and the value of innovation to the settlement sector
  • Building a shared understanding of and commitment to innovation practices across the sector

Data Use and Data Skills

Reports underscored the importance of data use at the individual, agency, and sector levels in moving the sector’s innovation forward. Efficient data practices (collection, use, sharing, and analysis) are essential in managing and delivery of services, evaluating their impacts, and planning for the improvement of programs. Data practices continue to be a major pillar of outcome-driven service and programming, which is one of IRCC’s CORE Principles as outlined in PeaceGeeks (2020).

To achieve this, it is important to have coordinated and collective data capacity building efforts. As recommendations underscored, supporting SPOs in identifying data gaps and data needs is a critical area of focus, which will require expertise, resources, and continued support in developing organizational data capabilities (PeaceGeeks 2019; AMSSA 2021). ACS (2021) emphasized the need for longitudinal data in capturing patterns and processes more completely throughout the settlement journeys of newcomers, which requires further collaboration with policymakers.

From an outcome measurement standpoint, SPOs, especially those serving rural areas, lack a detailed picture about their service impact partly because client feedback mostly relies on informal mechanisms. ACS (2021) further noted the need to harness
immediate and anecdotal feedback, especially in smaller communities where casual encounters are common. Additionally, AMSSA (2021) recommended that the sector and SPOs investigate the prospects provided by digital technologies in-built data analytics capabilities. As the report noted, this would necessitate resources for the development of a set of skills, tools, and guidelines for dealing with the ethical aspects of data work.

Another core component of recommendations related to data use is setting up a secure, central hub that brings together datasets from different SPOs to facilitate referrals and connect with other SPOs. According to ACS (2021), this may be accomplished by utilizing a standardized needs assessment for each newcomer inside a common database. The database may then be used to track
settlement process outcomes and outputs. Additionally, the report noted that settlement data could be combined from federal, provincial, and local databases into a single platform to create a more comprehensive picture of the efficiency and effectiveness of settlement services. Importantly, such data practices would require organizations to have strong knowledge and skills about data, data management expertise, and data culture, as highlighted in PeaceGeeks (2019).

Data Use and Data Skills Recommendations

Goal: Organizations can securely collect, use, share, and analyze to support and strengthen service delivery, evaluate program impact and assess newcomer outcomes.

Enhance the quality and diversity of data collection tools for improving programming and service evaluation by:

  • Identifying data gaps and supporting the sector to develop new evaluation tools and methodologies
  • Identifying resources needed to collect and integrate anecdotal data into formal feedback protocols
  • Building and continually improving data sharing guidelines with a focus on promoting interoperability
  • Setting up a secure, central hub to enable SPO data sharing and sector referrals
  • Identifying frontline and leadership data skill needs and provide professional development
  • Defining and supporting professional data roles required for SPOs to harness their client data

Funding Models

According to recommendations, the funding ecosystem appeared as the major determinant of innovative practices in the settlement sector. Reports consistently addressing those funding models should recognize that hybrid service delivery is not a destination, but is instead a journey that needs time, resources, expertise, and ability to incubate new ideas, leading to innovation in the settlement sector.

Reports emphasized the importance of flexible funding for innovation, continuity, and sustainability. PeaceGeeks (2019, 2020, 2021) and AMSSA (2021) emphasized that flexible funding is essential for SPOs to be able to adapt programs and responses. This would free up valuable time for staff to concentrate on their essential mission: providing newcomers with high-quality settlement services. Additionally, teams and managers would have the time and space they need to reflect on big picture priorities, internally evaluate their work, and optimize workflows and activities in order to promote evidence-based programming. These would be valuable gains for the sector with funding models being transferred to be long-term, consistent, and with simplified application procedures.

Similarly, ACS (2021) noted that the provision of core costs (e.g. unrestricted or partially restricted financial support for SPOs’ administrative and other core expenses) would positively impact SPOs’ internal capacity to innovate. This would help SPOs
to enhance staff job security and increase human resources capacity by attracting and retaining a pool of digital talents.

PeaceGeeks (2021) further recommended that funding can be especially helpful in integrating technology to make daily tasks more efficient or in creating a centralized service for offloading administrative duties, and eventually winning more time for innovation projects and experimentation. Alternatively, SPOs should be funded to support the creation of staff positions committed to developing and advocating innovation. As reports indicated, the pandemic created momentum for the sector and its key funder to acknowledge what SPOs could accomplish with flexible funding that allowed them to react and adapt to the rapid shifts and find innovative responses to newcomers’ needs.

Both PeaceGeeks (2021) and AMSSA (2021) identified open and consistent communication with funders as a crucial aspect that allowed SPOs to delve further with unrestrained thinking and planning, resulting in innovative practices and service solutions. Other reports have also backed up this recommendation, emphasizing the critical need of maintaining an open, transparent, and consistent communication culture between SPOs and funders that allows for rapid information sharing. PeaceGeeks (2021) noted the importance of a supportive attitude and open dialogue with IRCC program officers, coupled with flexible funding, as shown
during the pandemic, in boosting SPOs’ ability to respond innovatively. As reports indicated, this information sharing and dialogue not only provides an important basis for iterations on program design and implementation, but also allows both SPOs and funders to better assess early indicators of success for service outcome.

Integral to this dialogue between the sector and its funders, the reports indicated that current funding models are struggling to fully capture the impact of service in the long-term due to an overreliance on outputs or a “hitting the target” mindset. Measuring outcomes is always an issue in human services. However, it is more challenging for smaller and remote settlement centres. An example that serves to illustrate this issue is present in ACS (2021) where rural SPOs feel they were penalized for not having enough clients. However, due to pandemic and lack of childcare, fewer newcomers were able to access the centres. When combined with newcomers’ lack of access to digital services, this issue demands particular attention and further conversation between SPOs and funders.

Critically, the reports entail the recommended mindset shift for funders in terms of nurturing a culture of innovation and collaboration at the sector level.

One way to approach this is that funding models should incorporate incentives and rewards that encourage meaningful collaboration rather than competition in the sector. For example, PeaceGeeks (2021) recommended that some funding schemes should include collaboration as an application precondition. Such partnership would bring benefits for all, but especially for smaller centres with limited infrastructure. This notion is echoed in AMSSA (2021) as well, which references the value of partnerships in enhancing the digital capacity of smaller centres.

In addition to that, recommendations emphasized that funding models should support risk-taking, hypothesis testing, and iterations. It is evident that SPOs are willing to test ideas but they need to feel safe to fail and continue learning.

Funding Models Recommendations

Goal: Innovative programs, practices, and services are incentivized, resourced, and implemented consistently.

Reimagine funding models, requirements and relationships by:

  • Acknowledging that long-term, flexible funding models with simplified application processes promote innovation
  • Rethinking the link between funding structures and service outcomes, taking into account that positive service outcomes often require longer term engagement
  • Acknowledging funding models should embrace openness to learning, testing, risk taking and experimenting at an organizational level, including changes to funding agreements and program design during the funding period

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