Recording: Settlement and Integration Sector Virtual Learning Exchange

This is a recording and notes from presentations at an immigrant and refugee-serving sector-only virtual event on June 16, 2020. I was honored to moderate the panel. The panelists focused on technological adaptations made to settlement service delivery due to COVID-19, share promising practices and challenges, as well as other outcomes from the sector discussion.

If you were not able to attend, the session was recorded and I very much recommend you view it (the recording also includes the second panel on Case Management for vulnerable clients).

Our panelists were:

2 service providers

  • Julie-Ann Vincent, Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS)
  • Manjeet Dhiman, ACCES Employment

1 rural development representative

  • Dee Ann Benard, Alberta Rural Development Network

1 civic tech organization, newer to the sector

  • Jennifer Freeman, PeaceGeeks

Our panel discussion focused on three themes:

  1. The Digital Divide & Digital Equity in our sector, focusing on organizations as well as clients
  2. A discussion of challenges and successes of technology in service delivery, and some specific promising practices
  3. A future looking discussion: where do we go from here as a sector? What do we see as the new normal in settlement service delivery?

We polled the participants, asking them do you feel your organization is doing during this pandemic:  

  1. Surviving (Barely getting by; all energy and the organization and teams are focused on extremely short-term goals.) 10%
  2. Striving (the organization and teams have space and energy to start thinking about medium-term goals), 58%
  3. Thriving (You’ve really hit your stride; the organization and teams are clear on their mission, and you’re all working towards ambitious, long-term goals). 31%

These notes are from a post-panel conversation and presentation I had with IRCC and sector agency representatives discussing Alternate Service Delivery (ASD) approaches with IRCC. They summarize what I think were the key points panelists made, along with some of my own thoughts.

Theme: The Digital Divide and Digital Equity in the sector, with organizations as well as clients

  1. The issue of digital divide has been coming up a lot in recent days. We saw this in a recent sector survey on COVID/remote work. AMSSA has also heard from its members in various meetings how the digital divide has created challenges with service delivery.

In our society participation in civic activity, education, business, employment, and receiving services is increasingly dependent on access to technology and digital literacy. Digital Equity is the condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed to fully participate in our society, democracy and economy.

Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies. In other words, how we achieve Digital Equity. 

In this first theme we discussed:

What are the realities of the digital divide in our sector (both at the agency and client/community levels) and how can our agencies help address that? What does digital equity mean for our sector and how do we ensure digital equity is maintained amongst clients/staff and organizations across regions?

ASD-related question: How are SPOs addressing cross-cutting challenges related to alternative service delivery (ASD), such as the digital literacy of newcomers and settlement sector workers, the protection of client information, and infrastructure? What are some other challenges?

Key themes: Understanding our clients, their digital literacy, their digital capacity, their access to digital is essential. Our capacity in these areas is equally important and needs investment, sharing promising practices in a way that allows them to be replicated, and professional development/core competencies.

When you look at technology from this angle, from digital equity and inclusion, it’s clear that what we’re looking at is a fundamental need to adapt to our clients, our society in general, and to ensure that we’re doing that with principles of digital equity and inclusion at the core of our efforts.

I’ll quote ISANS’ Julie-Ann Vincent as an example: “For me, digital equity means connecting with clients in the way that they can interact. That means Being flexible and meeting them where they are. If we only offer platforms that require a computer and are not optimized for cellphone use, then we’re limiting access. So more and more in the IT world websites and other services are no longer mobile friendly. They’re mobile optimized, or they’re based on a responsive design. So they’re focused on the ways in which consumers are actually using technology and accessing services. And not how designers think that our clients should be using technology, or, or customers in general. And so I think we in the settlement sector need to recognize this and begin to work with it.

Geography is only one part of it. Digital tech access or literacy has other dimensions as well. If they don’t have access to a cell phone, or data plan, they can’t get services, more limited. Some families may only have one device. Prioritize within families, defer to kids accessing for education during COVID, which restricts access for parents to services, etc. Geographic, as well as ability to simply access. This impacts the questions we ask newcomers. For example, asking “do you have an internet connected device in your house?” isn’t enough. We need to ask if they have one they have regular access to, or if their devices are shared, or if they have limited data vs high speed home-based internet access.

Julie-Ann also said “I think it’s really important that we recognize in the same way that from a trauma informed approach, all the different ways that the settlement sector is really good at connecting with clients, that we continue to do that with technology as well.” This speaks to technology not as something that should be looked at as done on the side of worker’s desks, but as a core competency that should be consistent across the sector.

So we need to become experts not only in the technologies we use, but also our clients’ use of and access to technology. This has a direct impact on technology choices for service delivery: Video conferencing, high bandwidth tools – need to know and understand implications of the tech you use. Lack of points of access. Use the phone – most people do have a phone. If you can do something that’s applicable.

Dee Ann – rarely settlement agencies in rural communities. Generally an individual or small team providing services. Same person trying to provide generalist services. Library is a key resource and point of access. Looking at connections through different points of access is also important.

Manjeet – access to the internet is and should be considered an essential service. This breaks down into 3 themes – internet access, access to devices and equipment, digital literacy and skills. 

Devices – one device used to be enough. Greater need for devices. Mobile devices are core to clients accessing services. ACCES received device donations from corporate partners – pool of devices for clients to borrow – lending, couriering devices to clients. Computer or tablet. Helping them buy devices.

Dee Ann spoke about a service where devices were rented to clients – monthly rental agreement based on income.

There are also examples of finding and working with organizations that provide devices, such as refurbished devices, vs loaning, vs renting, etc.

Aside of examples:

Recent sector example – Wind Mobile offered free phones, service to Syrian refugees

Rogers donating phones with free plans to women’s shelters across Canada

Toronto Public Library Wi-Fi Hotspot Lending program

A number of refurbished computer organizations

Within organizations there are additional considerations

Integrating technology clients use is important, but organizations have struggled with how to build that in because it’s not necessarily part of the business suite of tools. As we saw in the poll, some agencies are still very much trying to figure this out. In questions during the panel, there were specific “how to” questions about privacy policies, device loan processes and policies. Organizations are trying to figure this out. There is a thirst and desire to learn from each other.

Theme: Challenges and successes of technology in service delivery, and some specific promising practices

  1. Aside from digital equity and digital divide, what are some of the other challenges experienced by the sector with the use of technology during COVID? What are some of the successes? What are some of the current initiatives under development by the sector to create innovative technology solutions and programs?
  2. Alternative Service Delivery-related question: In the context of COVID-19, what opportunities related to alternative service delivery have emerged for SPOs and newcomers?

Managing privacy issues came up in the discussion from participants. It’s a key issue and challenge as organizations move through the struggle to integrate new technologies into their service toolkit. This includes personal use of devices by workers, which still occurs, to specific technology challenges like WhatsApp groups, where all group members have access to each others’ phone number information.

Building a flow from pre-arrival to in-country services and not disconnecting them. They were disconnected at first – there was a hand off from the pre-arrival team to in-agency team. ACCES has worked to create a more seamless transition. Integrating previous silos has been important.

Getting newcomers to become aware of services continues to be a challenge, even during the digital age. 

Suggestions to build into budgets tech, professional development and capacity building – digital as well as content literacy – have online infrastructure and licenses, costing out well, but also human and IT and internal capacity building – maintenance and actual content. Online services team – take in person work and convert into online. Blended, not just either or, interaction with staff, building in workshops, live sessions, 1-on-1 service delivery to help clients navigate as well.

Digital literacy for staff as well. Once you start building, quality is important – it can scale and be shared widely. Digital capacity for organizations. Build corporate partnerships and collaborations to help get unrestricted cash and pro bono work. 

Corporate donations and pro-bono consulting support have also factored significantly into their development of their digital capacity in service delivery.

Different tech such as AI to help clients navigate information. ACCES is about to launch VERA – Virtual Employment Resource Attendant. Creating a more interactive experience for clients, 24/7. Constantly iterating and evolving services as technology evolves.

From participants, indicating that the struggle continues: “This is all great, but I’m overwhelmed. Where do I even know how to start? I’m small. We’ve got five people on staff, we don’t have an IT department. What are some recommendations folks might want to make around just where do you start to think through this?”

It’s essential to build some internal IT capacity going forward.

We need to invest not just in the technological capabilities, but in instructional development and in curriculum development especially as we move to opportunities to provide newcomers with self-directed information that they can then discuss with Settlement Practitioners. Think of the flipped classroom model. This is also about new roles and competitive salaries so we can attract people in these roles.

The sector needs to recognize the importance of valuing that and investing in it. And the more we can do that as a sector so that individual organizations aren’t reinventing the wheel all the time, push it forward as a sector so that those individual organizations can then access it as needed is going to be really critical for us to not move backwards on some of the gains painful gains in a lot of cases. But some of the gains that we’ve made in the sector need to recognize the importance of valuing that and investing in it. Moving forward as a sector so that those individual organizations can then access it as needed is going to be really critical for us to not move backwards on some of the painful gains in a lot of cases. But some of the gains that we’ve made at larger agencies that are ahead of the curve.

Theme: Where do we go from here?

  1. What is the potential for national recommendations around settlement and technology? With the onset of COVID-19, services have pivoted to online service delivery with sometimes promising results. On the other hand, the essence of the work that the sector does especially with vulnerable populations is in-person. What, in your opinion, will be the new normal in settlement service delivery?

ASD-related question: What could IRCC do to support national consistency in alternative service delivery?

Settlement 2.0 recommendations from PeaceGeeks are an important read:

  • Invest in technology access, literacy & infrastructure as it evolves, and client use of it changes
  • Engage in conversation with the settlement sector about how funding structures might shift to better encourage, support, and incentivize innovative and collaborative practices and processes, to continue to make effective use of resources, and further build trust between funders and funded agencies
  • A sector-wide capacity-building approach is needed that builds on existing professional development efforts, and which is also open to exploring innovation approaches from other service-providing sectors 
  • Formalize and implement knowledge mobilization efforts & practice 
  • Ground settlement work in communities to support newcomers in bridging their settlement journey from the early stages of their settlement to when they feel ready to meaningfully call Canada their home
  • Pursue asset-based language, programming, and outreach across the sector and beyond
  • Engage the broader Canadian community in conversations about immigration and settlement  

“There’s always kind of this first kind of reaction to you know, is technology going to replace, you know, staff and the work that they do. And certainly we’ve seen No, absolutely not, like I said, I think it enhances the work that they do so that more of them have more time for that value added piece.”

But, panelists suggested, we can do more with technology. “We can use technology to support more of the simple and repetitive tasks that a lot of you know, counselors and workers are doing. We can go from just sharing information, which can be done through technology to then actually having our staff to do what We would I would describe as kind of the more value added elements of their work, which is really working with, with clients, one on one, and providing or in groups, but to really provide that human side of where we’re taking information and we’re now tailoring it to the individual.” AI/chatbots as an example of alleviating repetition. Or, lower tech, using FAQs. Settlement.Org is a great example of this in between step – common questions, answered, with referrals to more resources. 

Put another way:

Newcomers can skip the most annoying part of customer service, waiting for an appointment. They can immediately talk to a bot to see if they’re able to find an answer to their problem.

On the other hand, the actual Settlement Workers can skip the most annoying part of their job – dealing with repetitive issues that many newcomers could have easily handled themselves.

It is a slow and gradual process.

Technology “improves access for some people because they don’t have to travel, they don’t have to worry about childcare. It allows them to participate in services from their homes. I think that makes in some ways our services more accessible for some people, again, for other people who don’t have access to the proper resources, we need to make sure that we’re still there for them in person to offer those services. And I think moving forward again, always an important element of our services was building in that digital literacy, not only for staff, but definitely for clients. And I think we’re going to be really building that into our services.”

At the same time, the sector and IRCC need to ensure that services are accessible for clients for whom technology is not their chosen or possible channel for services.

The blended approach is the future approach – both in terms of client services, but also of workers working remotely more than pre-COVID. There is infrastructure, investment and capacity building that will need to happen to make that work.

But let’s not forget about the importance of in-person service delivery. 

“The sector by virtue of necessity has made huge gains for it in the past few months when we look at virtual service delivery. But what we do need to recognize is that as we move forward and try to build on that. We need to do a close analysis of the best way to move forward and not just, Oh, we’ve done it, we’re there. And now how do we improve? We need to understand that the context of what we’ve been doing has been in the midst of a crisis where everybody’s been forced into this scenario. And I think it’s important to take a step back and evaluate how that’s working. What are the best practices, what is working really well and what should we continue, but also make sure we’re asking deep questions such as, is this reasonable, feasible, cost effective and valuable going forward? Which are the services where this is the case. How do we need to build on that and improve and enhance them. But which ones are not?

Moving forward is really important, but we want to do it in an evidence based way and one, that we’re ensuring that we’re continuing to meet our outcomes and that we’re building on them, so that our clients, again, you know, newcomers are able to settle and integrate across Canada in a seamless, accessible way that’s going to give them you know, sort of the best path forward.”

We also need to talk about a Knowledge Mobilization/transfer/brokering/sharing strategy in the sector. What is learned must be shared in an ongoing way, both formally and informally. IRCC should not wait for the end of formal evaluations or assessments to share interesting and innovative projects. Building this into this plan is essential not just for IRCC but for agencies as well.

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