Blog Post

Strengthening the Immigrant and Refugee-serving Sector's Hybrid Service Environment

(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.)

Strengthening hybrid service delivery means that the settlement sector consistently fosters an enabling service environment characterized by a shared vision of digital transformation, and the baseline capacities, infrastructure and culture needed to achieve that vision.

Vision and Strategy

Digital transformation in the settlement sector means new ways of serving newcomers, building new strategies of service delivery, and creating new forms of partnerships and collaborations. All reports reveal the fact that a sector-wide strategic vision should be developed, supported, and sustained to support digital transformation. As evident in the reports, there is no one clear and dominant strategy that can be emulated in the sector, yet there are key principles and precedents that serve as the framework for this strategic vision.

Reports highlighted two notions associated with digital transformation efforts in the sector. The first is the notion of continuum, meaning that digital transformation should be considered as an ongoing process that constantly builds capabilities that refresh or replace an existing service delivery approach. The second is the notion of divergence, which refers to the fact that not all organizations are in the same stage in their digital transformation. The differences between small centres and bigger Service Provider Organizations (SPOs) as well as rural and urban SPOs in terms of where they stand in their digital transformation are significant, as mentioned in several reports, including The Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) (2021).

Digital Maturity refers to the ability to adjust to the continuous, ongoing and rapidly changing digital landscape. It provides a roadmap that SPOs use to see how their work evolves, a tool to assess SPOs’ ability to deliver hybrid services, and importantly, a shared vocabulary that helps spark helpful conversations within and across SPOs. Two reports (AMSSA 2021 and PeaceGeeks 2021) explicitly state that digital maturity models are useful foundations to build a digital strategy on. AMSSA (2021) emphasized the need for the sector to review existing Digital Maturity Models, Digital Inclusion, and Digital Literacy models from within and
outside nonprofit sectors to curate and customize models for the sector. PeaceGeeks (2021) underscored the need for IRCC to create funds dedicated to developing SPOs’ digital maturity.

As capacities and resources currently vary among SPOs, it is important to establish baseline skills and infrastructure as part of the digital transformation vision. Even prior to the pandemic, PeaceGeeks (2019) highlighted the need for establishing a baseline set of standards for technology use in service delivery. It is important to increase service consistency and quality. From a newcomer’s
perspective, it will give a realistic estimate of what to expect (at the very least) in their first interaction with a SPO. Also, it conveys the message that newcomers are given the same opportunities regardless of their choice of SPO.

AMSSA (2021) offered a definition of baseline as “floor of competencies”, technologies, infrastructure, digital literacies, digital capacity, etc., that all agencies need to have. From cybersecurity standards (AMSSA 2021, 2022) to professional development opportunities, reports underscored the importance of creating and maintaining baseline skills, standards, and infrastructure that are optimal in a hybrid service delivery context (ACS 2021 and PeaceGeeks 2019).

Reports emphasized two complementary and mutually reinforcing approaches to digital capacity building: contextualized (customized and localized) and continuous (long-term investment focus). They consistently highlighted that the sector needs resources, continuing support, diverse funding structures and partnerships, trust, space, and time to develop a hybrid service vision and capabilities.

One way of embracing the notion of contextualization is to engage with low-cost, high-impact localization approaches. Reports are consistent in their recommendations that customization and localization are needed in program delivery across different regions and varying population demographics. Newcomers face bureaucratic difficulties while using centralized services, thus ACS (2021) recommended decentralized approaches that provide better service. PeaceGeeks (2021) recommended that IRCC create a National Small Center Working Group (as part of the National Settlement and Integration Council) made up of sector and IRCC representatives from all regions. This will need longterm, continuous investments. AlphaPlus (2021), for instance, noted that reliance on short-term programs does not adequately address persistent and interrelated issues.

Several digital specialist roles have been created since the beginning of the pandemic. While the specificity and context may vary for every organization, these roles often involve assisting with the acquisition of affordable internet access and devices, as well as offering technical and application-specific support. Reports highlight the need for formalization of newly emerging roles of digital specialists, such as Digital Navigator, Instructional Designer, Digital Pedagogy Specialist, Cybersecurity, Digital, and Data Protection Advisors. It is critical that these positions, as well as those that are emerging, are acknowledged and supported. Also, more investigation is needed to better understand the success and challenges of these roles, with a focus on both organizational and staff needs and solutions.

And lastly, as a part of digital transformation vision and strategy, it is recommended that technology should be seen as a service enabler, not merely infrastructure. This is particularly relevant when we think about the role of technology in newcomers’ lives and settlement journeys. As the International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2021) noted, technology can be an essential lifeline in their journey, with many refugees, for example, identifying smartphones and the internet as being as important for a sense of safety and security as food, water, and shelter. Both PeaceGeeks (2021) and AMSSA (2021) recommended technology as core to program delivery, which must be reflected in planning and forecasting. This recommendation is also emphasized in AMSSA (2022) in terms of how funding mechanisms that are intended to support SPOs’ needs surrounding Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technologies must view technology as an operational expenditure.

Vision and Strategy Recommendations

Goal: SPOs have a shared commitment to a newcomer-centric and sector-wide strategic vision for digital transformation and pursue sectoral, organizational and project objectives to advance that vision.

Develop and sustain a common evidence-based sector-wide strategic vision for digital transformation including by:

  • Establishing concrete guidelines on digital inclusion and equity
  • Embedding the strategy in research on Digital and Data Maturity models, as well as Risk Frameworks
  • Establishing specialized working groups to advance key priority areas
  • Providing guidance to SPOs and sector on change management
  • Establishing a monitoring and evaluation plan to assess progress and identify emerging needs
  • Ensuring that newcomer experiences are centered in service design and delivery processes

Build contextualized and continuous digital capacities by:

  • Investing in low-cost, high-impact and localization approaches
  • Investing in long-term, ongoing support
  • Formalizing new digital professional roles and Communities of Practice
  • Establishing baseline skills, capacities and infrastructure at all levels

Acknowledge the role of technology as a service enabler and not just as infrastructure which requires:

  • Recognizing certain technology costs as a core/ operational/ service delivery expenses
  • Investing in research on, and testing relevance of, new technologies for service delivery as they emerge

Digital Literacy and Skills

There is an overwhelming consensus among reports that digital literacy should be regarded as a key component of digital transformation and hybrid service delivery. The sector needs to be constantly and effectively supported with digital literacy
and skill-building education and training in order to make full use of the opportunities afforded by technology while also being aware of and mitigating online risks, cybersecurity, privacy and confidentiality online, as reports recommended. The long-term vision is key. It is also expanded upon in National Settlement and Integration Council (NSIC) (2021) that SPOs will continue virtual service delivery for certain program components post-pandemic, while some require in-person complements. Although some SPOs have undertaken efforts to define the spectrum of digital literacy, there is no widely accepted approach for assessing it. A sector-wide measure of digital literacy needs to be defined in order to offer a sustainable and comprehensive assessment for newcomers’ digital skills and to maintain a mature hybrid service environment.

Reports consistently underscore the need for continued funding and support for training of SPO staff. As several sector stakeholders confirmed, hiring digital specialists would not be enough as hybrid service delivery is highly likely to persist. Therefore, long-term and consistent training is recommended for staff and to support newcomers on how best to use technology in a service context.

AMSSA (2021) recommended three important components of digital literacy assessment:

  1. the concept of digital literacy in the sector should be defined with recognizing the uniqueness of clients in different programs
  2. assessments should be built in regular work routines and should be contextualized in SPOs’ needs and programs’ demands
  3. when designing the assessment, it is crucial to consider clients’ intersectional identities, including race, gender, educational and professional background, sexual orientation, disability, and cultural practices.

Recommendations offer insights into how digital skills should be integrated into everyday programs. For example, IOM (2021) emphasized the need for Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) to explore designing and providing digital literacy and skill-building content directly as part of the regular curriculum, while also doing continued awareness-raising around the inclusion of digital skills as part of Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) training. This will enable newcomers with minimal previous exposure to digital devices and tools to learn the essentials of online security (e.g., data protection online, password protection, and identifying online
fraud). It also carries value for newcomers with more mature digital literacy skills to be further informed about online resources available in Canada to assist with resettlement.

Digital Literacy and Skills Recommendations

Goal: SPO leadership and frontline workers have the skills and infrastructure needed to assess and deliver effective services, including digital literacy programs, to newcomers.

Improve newcomer digital literacy by:

  • Defining a spectrum of digital literacy and creating common tools to assess and target both remote and in-person services
  • Integrating newcomer digital literacy assessment into SPO programs
  • Ensuring newcomers have access to digital literacy development opportunities, regardless of circumstances and stages of their settlement journey

Strengthen digital literacy of frontline and leadership by:

  • Allocating funding to develop targeted training, upskilling and frontline professional development
  • Creating new sector-specific technology transformation positions and ensuring that all job descriptions accurately reflect changing expectations and skill requirements
  • Developing funds to identify best practices on cybersecurity, privacy, and digital literacy
  • Strengthening the Library of Good Practices by expanding resources on SPO and newcomer-facing tools

Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology

Understanding technology as a core operational cost, as noted previously, would require long-term, continuous support in investing in digital infrastructures and systems (e.g. devices, software, hardware, and newcomer support tools) for SPOs that continue to support organizational digital transformation.

One component of this, as recommended by AMSSA (2021, 2022) and PeaceGeeks (2019, 2021) is continued guidance on technology, platforms, and tools that support SPOs to prioritize and adopt those systems that are critical to hybrid service delivery. This guidance on baseline technology is important as many SPOs are presently dealing with information overload on how to navigate digital environments without clear and formal guidance on secure and trustworthy digital infrastructure. This notion is further reinforced in NSIC’s (2021) strategic aim of providing consistent guidance to the sector by identifying best practices on cybersecurity, privacy, and digital inclusion, as well as developing norms and standards for digital service delivery.

Critically, recommendations are consistent in terms of ensuring long-term and comprehensive funding for SPOs’ digital infrastructure and Information Technology (IT) tools. AMSSA (2022) highlighted the need for technology applications to be seamlessly linked so that no manual intervention is required.

Alpha Plus (2021) recommended a long-term, coordinated plan to ensure that investments in hardware, software, and technical support are coordinated (e.g. purchasing devices with technical troubleshooting support and Wi-Fi purchase). Regular technology audits, the opportunity to participate in group licensing agreements, and access to regional rather than individual program-level technology support arrangements should all be part of this coordinated approach. This approach also includes learning innovation labs where learners and educators may try out new applications and software and offer user experience feedback. It also offers a selected and constantly updated online library of culturally-relevant digital books and learning tools.

Finally, IOM (2021) emphasized that the introduction of digital tools should be based on an understanding of the context, strategies for overcoming barriers (such as literacy, trust, affordability, connectivity, and disability), risk mitigation, and an acknowledgement that digital approaches may not be appropriate or accessible in all circumstances.

Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology Recommendations

Goal: SPOs adopt the right mix of secure and interoperable systems to support effective service delivery.

Support procurement of strategic infrastructure and information technology tools by:

  • Strengthening client tracking and data management systems, including CRMs, that are interoperable and that comply with existing data standards
  • Ensuring a mix high-tech and low-tech solutions to better serve newcomers with diverse literacy levels
  • Promoting interoperability across systems and information technology solutions

Culture Change

Reports consistently underscore the need for culture change in the sector that promotes innovation and skills development. They further suggest that the sector cannot engineer innovation culture, and that it is ultimately about people and their behaviors. It is a natural process that occurs over time. The question then becomes “What can be done to establish incentives for stakeholders to adopt a culture of innovation?” The reports highlight three levels of focus.

First, at the organizational level, SPOs should embrace openness to test, learn, and listen to new voices, and experiment with new ways of service delivery. Leadership is key, as PeaceGeeks (2021) noted, in protecting and rewarding well-informed risk-taking at the organization, while acknowledging both successes and failures are equally meaningful opportunities to learn and grow. As the report underscores, leadership needs to show the commitment to culture change, which is reinforced by trust between leadership and staff, in both directions. Additionally, AMSSA (2021) indicated hiring from across-disciplines and fields, particularly digital specialist roles, brings opportunities to rethink and reimagine service delivery, contributing to a long-term culture change.

Secondly, at the sector level, the reports focused on establishing incentives and formally recognizing the value in creating collaborative culture. PeaceGeeks (2021) shared existing examples of forming rural settlement networks where larger and smaller centres can connect and support each other with best practices and resource sharing. The report also highlighted additional best practices that IRCC has actively supported, such as collaboration among extremely small agencies. ACS (2021) further noted its value in terms of bridging knowledge gaps between SPOs.

And lastly, at the funders level, reports recommended that funders need to commit to cultivating a change culture through flexible funding models and approaches. As previously noted, a culture of innovation requires time and space to organically evolve, thus incentives need to match this need. The reports highlighted the need for long-term funds and continued incentives that address innovation-focused needs in the sector. ACS (2021) recommended small, innovative, successful projects be scaled up to larger organizations when they have been proved useful, rather than developing large-scale programs that cannot be scaled down for smaller rural communities.

Culture Change Recommendations

Goal: Settlement practitioners are encouraged to continuously innovate through flexible funding models, incentives and skills development.

Create incentives for stakeholders to adopt a culture of innovation by:

  • Embracing openness to learn, test, take risks and experiment at an organizational level
  • Creating incentives and recognition for and a culture of collaboration at a sector level
  • Strengthening funding incentives that promote an open and collaborative culture at a funder level

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