What is this research about?
This report discusses the rapid shift to online delivery of settlement services as COVID-19 took hold, outlining some of the major challenges during the first eighteen months of this transition in the Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector.
What do you need to know?
The COVID-19 pandemic affected many aspects of immigrant-serving agencies but none more than the mode of service delivery. There was a rapid switch to online delivery of services, with 100 percent reporting they had shifted some services online by September 2020.
As it became clear that some clients could not be served online, a hybrid model of delivery, with most services offered online and in-person services offered to especially vulnerable clients and those in the most urgent circumstances was widely adopted.
What did the researchers do?
They surveyed 74 managers and 238 frontline workers from OCASI member agencies between November 26 and December 23, 2021. Complete results can be found here:
Watch video of presentations made which form the basis of this report/policy preview:
What did the researchers find?
By September 2021, 30.95% of managers said their agencies had increased their capacity to offer services in a hybrid model combining in-person and online delivery. Eighteen months of experience with online and hybrid models of service delivery revealed three notable challenges: the growing complexity of client needs, the difficulties of recruiting, training, and deploying volunteers, and the mismatch between funding practices and the financial support required.
Even as the total number of clients served by agencies decreased, the number of services delivered to clients was stable or increased slightly.
Effects on Newcomers
According to the Frontline Workers Survey, 78% of staff reported that their organizations had difficulty ensuring that clients had adequate and stable digital access. Clients’ difficulties gaining access to online services are especially concerning because the wholesale shift to online services by immigrant-serving agencies required that workers and clients use new platforms and programs. Almost two-thirds of workers, 62%, reported that their organizations had introduced new virtual platforms and 59% reported using new programs to serve clients remotely.
The mismatch between the online services now being offered and clients’ digital barriers raises serious concerns about which migrants will be able to access settlement services in the future.
How will the most vulnerable who are least likely to have either the technological tools or the digital literacy required for online services be served? Hybrid service models that 67% of workers said were in place by September 2021 are one answer to this question; however, their success depends on sustained community outreach that was disrupted by the pandemic.
Effects on Staff and Volunteers
Agencies lost volunteers during the pandemic, with 39% of managers reporting the loss of most volunteers. Volunteers could also experience digital barriers that limit their involvement with ISAs.
Managers are already concerned about staff, with 85.1% of respondents identifying the mental health and wellbeing of staff as an organizational priority in the year preceding the survey.
Impact on funding
Revenue sources shifted during the pandemic resulting in more reliance on government funding. Between September 2020 and September 2021, 48% of agency managers reported a loss of revenue from user fees and fundraising.
Key funders such as Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) enabled agencies to move services online and adopt COVID-19 health measures. Funding was largely maintained and equally important, client targets were relaxed allowing agencies to offer more services to a smaller number of clients.
The shift to online services also altered the geography of service delivery with important implications for funding.
How can you use this research?
The report calls for institutionalized learning from the pandemic, maintaining flexible and stable funding from municipal, provincial, and federal governments, along with the reduction in bureaucratic rules and reporting requirements... immigrant-serving agencies and their funders should assess pandemic practices and aim to retain and enhance those that are beneficial to the agencies and ultimately enhance immigrant integration.
From the perspective of Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs), the report recommends maintaining the collaborative decision-making processes that developed during the pandemic. The survey findings underscore the success with which the sector pivoted to online services, maintained in-person services for the most vulnerable, and engaged in heightened collaboration. They demonstrate the value of maintaining and strengthening collaborations among all levels of government and sectors.
While not calling for it explicitly, the report also makes the case for enhanced sector participation in digital equity and inclusion initiatives across the sector, among all governments and other funders, as well as in policy circles. The sector has learned a lot about digital equity and inclusion during this time and this should make up part of the core diversity, equity, and inclusion work done by the sector.