Agency of the Future is a national project started in 2013 by Canada’s settlement sector and the Pathways to Prosperity research partnership (P2P). Its goal is to help settlement organizations capitalize on the market opportunities resulting from recent, and anticipated, policy changes and the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs). Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has participated in the development of the Agency of the Future project because of its interest in strengthening the settlement delivery system.
Several important premises underpin the project design:
- That the changing settlement ‘ecosystem’ offers settlement organizations new opportunities to market expertise and services to commercial and non-profit institutions, as well as to newcomers willing to pay for customized services. Key changes include: an enlarged role for employers and educational institutions in facilitating newcomer admissions; an increase in migration to new destination communities; greater emphasis on pre-arrival services; and a growing use of ICT. Selling services to new clients will reduce the sector’s dependence on existing financial sources and allow settlement organizations to address independent priorities. These might include enhanced refugee services, better facilities, better professional training, and new technology.
- That the settlement sector enjoys a strategic advantage over other organizations in delivering services to newcomers. This advantage resides in the sector’s ability to combine independent federal, provincial and other programs into comprehensive, creative solutions to the challenges that confront new arrivals. Settlement agencies are also able to mobilize ethnocultural and religious networks to assist them in their work. Both the specialized program expertise and the ability to mobilize networks result from the way that settlement organizations work. This gives them a strategic advantage over other organizations that do not operate in the same way.
- That the size and reach of the national settlement sector results in a deep pool of ‘experimental’ projects and ideas, often using new technologies, for addressing the challenges that face newcomers and the institutions that serve them. Individual settlement agencies across the country have evolved numerous, creative and effective ‘solutions’ to problems that span employment, health, justice and civic inclusion. These innovations are not, however, widely known and are not systematically shared. As a result, the sector’s ability to access new markets and identify new revenue sources is stunted. Interest by governments and other organizations in identifying and sharing promising practices suggests that this is a widespread problem.
The Agency of the Future project is designed to do three things: to help the settlement sector identify strategic business opportunities involving new markets, new clients and new technologies; to identify promising practices that would allow the business opportunities to be exploited; and to establish mechanisms for disseminating information about the promising practices to settlement agencies across the country. The integration of these processes into a recurrent cycle would power innovation within the national settlement sector. The components of the cycle are elaborated below:
On a cyclical basis, the settlement sector would initiate a planning exercise to establish priorities for expanding or strengthening its ‘business lines’. This exercise would be driven by national, provincial and regional settlement umbrella associations. Input would be sought from government and from researchers using existing consultative forums. Business priorities might target particular groups or institutions, particular services, technology, or functions, such as market analysis or planning.
Once priorities had been determined, a national search would begin for promising practices in the chosen areas. These practices would be analyzed using a proven methodology that combines documentary analysis with on-site, face-to-face interviews with agency experts. The aim is to uncover the internal (to the organization) and external (environmental) factors responsible for the exceptional practice outcomes, so they can be replicated elsewhere and scaled. Services based on the promising practices would be used to enter new markets and create new business lines.
National, provincial and regional umbrella associations would manage a process for identifying agencies or agency coalitions interested in extending into priority business areas. These agencies would be offered instruction in the promising practices. The training would follow a case study approach, combining presentations by experts from the promising practice agencies with analyses by researchers who had examined the practices. This would be supplemented by guides elaborating on key features and important steps in the business development process. Training could be delivered in-person or using on-line, distance education techniques.
The integration of the three elements into a coordinated and recurrent ‘Innovation Cycle’ would allow the settlement sector to leverage the ingenuity of its members and to expand along vectors that exploit their comparative advantages. CIC has a shared interest in helping to foster the Innovation Cycle.
Several working groups made up of settlement agency volunteers and P2P researchers have been pushing ahead on important aspects of the Agency of the Future project. Two key initiatives are under development: A pan-Canadian survey of settlement agencies and a set of pilot studies to investigate potential business lines.
(1) Pan-Canadian survey of settlement agencies
The pan-Canadian survey of settlement agencies has four objectives:
a. To assess the business opportunity landscape available to settlement agencies by comprehensively mapping the commercial and non-commercial (unfunded) activities undertaken, or planned, by settlement agencies;
b. To record the depth of the ‘innovation pool’ across the sector in respect of potential business lines and business activities;
c. To create rosters of agencies with experience in various business areas, so the expertise can be readily located and accessed to advance the sector’s business interests;
d. To map the current and projected uses by the sector of information and communication technology, along with barriers and interfaces with CIC policy and analytic systems.
The survey would be directed to all settlement service provider organizations in Canada that belong to a provincial or regional umbrella association. The help of these associations would be sought in order to encourage member agencies to complete the questionnaires.
Work on the survey is already underway and will be discussed at the P2P’s annual national conference in November 2014. Advice from workshop participants will be used to shape and refine the survey.
(2) Suite of market studies investigating potential business lines
Six potential business areas have been identified for the pilot studies. These include:
- Concierge service for employers, helping them to navigate the Express Entry system for processing skilled immigrants;
- Pre-arrival services for prospective immigrants helping them to facilitate their labour market insertion and settlement in Canada.
- Services aimed at public and private institutions implicated in refugee resettlement but lacking specialized knowledge, and assistance to private sponsorship groups to help with organization, fund raising and preparation;
- Support for immigrant entrepreneurs and agencies interested in economic development as well as succession planning for SME’s in smaller centres and remote areas;
- Services for international students and educational institutions to boost recruitment and student retention, especially in smaller centres;
- Services directed to businesses that recruit highly skilled temporary workers.
Three pilot studies will be conducted, in each case assessing the needs of potential clients, delineating possible services, assessing the size and location of potential markets, analyzing the existing service environment, and assessing the comparative advantage of settlement agencies relative to competitors.
Sponsors are currently being sought for both the pan-Canadian survey and the market studies. Using the insights derived from these analytic platforms, it is hoped that an initial version of the Innovation Cycle can be launched in late 2015 or early 2016.
In light of major changes in the way immigrants receive “settlement services” in the country, New Canadian Media invited Meyer Burstein and Carl Nicholson to write for us about the “Agency of the Future” project. This project seeks to position the settlement sector for the challenges ahead and will be an important topic of discussion at the Pathways to Prosperity national conference happening in Montreal on Nov. 24-25. All Canadians should have an interest in enabling the sector to aid future immigrants; so, please weigh in.