Can you serve newcomers using technology? You should be already

Our immigrant/refugee settlement sector is awash in technology. Unfortunately, in many cases the most powerful and actively used technologies are sitting in many workers’ pockets, not on their desktops. Our clients are well ahead of us in technology use. And they want to see our organizations using technology more effectively to serve them. Workers want to use technology with their clients, they just don’t see how their organization is moving forward.

To be fair, there are some great examples of technology innovation across Canada. But, they are few.  And, in general, we’re not building on them or sharing what’s learned with others. We can do better.

The reality is that not only can you use technology to provide services to newcomers after they arrive. We should be doing it before they arrive. Pre-arrival settlement services are still in their infancy. Although, they’re certainly growing.

Many settlement agencies get emails or tweets or FB questions from newcomers before they arrive. Pre-arrival services have always existed, mostly informally. But, without the necessary Permanent Resident (PR) card number, most service providers can’t claim these clients in their official service statistics.

It’s a major issue that both the sector and its funders, specifically Citizenship and Immigration Canada, need to figure out. It stifles service innovation for many agencies. Pre-arrival services that move someone along into post-arrival services are likely to create more successful settlement outcomes for those newcomers. Which means better community and economic outcomes for us all.

I’ll share a bunch of reports, stats, examples, resources, etc., soon to back up all this rhetoric. For today, I want to be more aspirational. Let’s discuss a vision of where we might be in a few years.

Where technology and human services for newcomers intersect

It’s 2018. Other nonprofit and for-profit settlement service providers have gone forth and are providing client service online. The settlement sector has learned from the lessons of early service technology adopters. Settlement organizations have more completely integrated technology into their service philosophy and policies, and are exceeding standards for technology and service practice.

It’s still about people, objectives, strategy, then technology. Not everyone in human services is enamored with technology and its potential in client service. Organizations continue to make the business case about using technology. They don’t assume that technology is right for every service, client, worker or project.

But, they’ve come to see emerging technologies, such as social media as potential outreach and service channels. Technology has become an essential tool and service channel they offer to their client. In different contexts, it is part of another unique service channel (eg. social media, online services) or is being used to augment existing face-to-face services.

Making the case for technology use is not about technology

But, what matters is that the technology alone is not the focus. The focus is clients, services, mission and outcomes. Technology has become a more defined and integral part of their service foundation. Technology serves their strategic interests, not the other way around.

Key questions that settlement service providers are now able to answer definitely for themselves:

  • How can we complement existing service delivery to offer clients another way to get help?
  • Can on-line, interactive access to and connection with counsellors, information, mentors and advisors, peers, and other learning resources be part of a service solution?
  • Our clients, volunteers and leaders are often amongst the most sophisticated users of technology, and have expectations about being able to communicate with us quickly and easily. How do we reach out to them with information in ways they can use?
  • How can wedetermine what and how best to use technology with your clients?
  • How can technology and social media help you achieve our client service goals?
  • Our use of the internet should be connected to the work we do every day. But, on the Web, what does this actually look like?
  • Who are we trying to serve? What are we trying to offer them? Is technology most effective when used to enhance an existing relationship? Or to connect with new and potential clients?
  • Can technology really help us connect with people we may never see or talk to?
  • How has technology used in pre-arrival settlement services improved the settlement success of our clients?
  • How do we share information inside our offices and within the Settlement Sector to improve services or advocate for clients?

The sector has developed some key principles for technology use:

  • No loss of human service interaction with clients
  • Minimal increase in workload for staff; instead, a change in how we do our work with some of our clients
  • Online services must complement existing services
  • Online work must contribute to meeting client service targets
  • This is not for all clients.
  • Privacy, security and confidentiality are essential and “baked in” to client services
  • Ethical considerations & best practice guidelines for technology use in client service have been created
  • Maintaining a high level of client-centric service focus is essential

Organizations have worked closely with key funders to help them redefine what a client interaction looks like and can be tracked/counted. Those providing online service have created both secure encrypted intake processes, but also secure service environments, whether through encrypted email, secure video/text chat, or password protected online discussion groups.

Funders get that pre-arrival services are essential. But also that connecting those served to existing settlement services in the communities where they plan to live makes sense. They’ve figured out how to get past the “PR Card barrier” and integrate entirely new service audiences, such as pre-arrival, international students, temporary foreign workers, pre-arrival refugees, and others.

Trends in technology use

The sector eventually came to see the obvious trend that technology and the internet are increasingly important to clients and organizations. Technology is being used by your clients, all around service providers. They’re accessing information on social media channels/websites, whether or not organizations are there providing info.

All clients? Not all clients. But, in many cases, agencies already had “hybrid clients.” Clients who interact with service providers face-to-face at times, and using technology in others (including the technologies we already take for granted – phone and email). The trick was to find out what more clients want to do with service providers using technology and starting building towards that. The organizations that figured that out in the past few years are thriving.

Over time, the “virtual only client” evolved and started being served by service organizations. The result has been that services have become more accessible and utilized by newcomer clients, including before they arrived in Canada. Their ability to hit the ground running in their settlement process has meant that both funders and service providers are working together to enhance online service provision to reach even more newcomers, in order to ensure their success.

It’s a work in progress, just like any technology. But, it’s progress.

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