Opinion: How the pandemic may have improved government agencies in their work

Chaos descended on governments more than two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of front-line public service workers and back-office bureaucrats from their desks, stop meeting clients and managing queues, and moving quickly to improvised digital services in departments that, in many cases, had barely outgrown the fax machine.

Unsurprisingly, some departments became frozen and dysfunctional, leaving a legacy of perpetual waiting lists, undelivered projects, and unanswered calls. But an unintended consequence of the global crisis has been that some branches of government have actually significantly improved their quality of service, in terms of both speed of delivery and efficiency of results. The virus has forced transformations, in many places, that should have happened decades ago.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way governments have changed the way they deal with the immigration process, settlement and pathway to citizenship. If you’ve ever emigrated to a new country, you know it involves years of day-long waits in government offices, repeated trips to bring the proper paperwork, awkward appointments with officials, forms that must be processed in person and often years of non-elective language and citizenship courses. Even for a middle-class immigrant with resources, this is a complex and disruptive process that can take years.

But the pandemic has had a striking and often overwhelmingly positive effect on immigration bureaucracies across the Western world. This is highlighted in a new study, “The COVID-19 Catalyst”, by Jasmijn Slootjes of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, in which his team examined the immigration bureaucracies of 14 countries, including Canada.

Virtually all developed countries have faced twin problems during the pandemic. First, restricted travel and sometimes closed borders have made it very difficult to recruit the people needed to sustain the economy, especially in suddenly crucial areas such as health care, elderly care and food production. And second, an already undersized bureaucracy was now working from home and unable to run service desks, offices and classrooms.

Three important things happened, according to Ms Slootjes.

First, the entire process of disembarkation, settlement, integration and naturalization has been brought online. While this created some downsides – immigrants often enjoy face-to-face meetings and the networking opportunities that come with them – they were surprised to find that these were generally more than outweighed by the benefits, which allowed for reach more people, much faster. and efficiently, over a wider geographical area and with fewer inconveniences.

This was especially true for immigrant women and members of vulnerable refugee communities, who for various reasons previously had difficulty meeting in person during office hours, but who could now be reached directly, in large numbers. number. Some countries did this immediately: Germany spent 40 million euros in 2020 to develop language-focused online integration courses.

Of course, some immigrants and especially asylum seekers struggle to find internet connections and smart devices. But the speed with which this problem was solved surprised everyone. In the Netherlands, a major new program has brought together tech companies and the government to provide devices to more than 12,000 people. Canada’s tech donation programs have become much more active, and Ottawa has launched a popular digital literacy program for immigrants during the pandemic.

Second, national governments have been forced to work with outside organizations and local governments, which actually have more front-line knowledge. (It’s the paradox of immigration: it’s a national policy realm that manifests itself almost entirely at the municipal level.),” writes Ms. Slootjes.

Many countries have decided to follow Canada’s example in terms of decentralization, whose settlement and integration services are mainly provided not by the federal civil service, but by 500 non-profit institutions and local governments whose employees and volunteers can work longer and more flexible hours, adapt more quickly and work in relationships of trust with clients, at lower costs.

And third, the pandemic has forced government agencies to rethink their core missions – and sometimes, their entire purpose.

The concept of ‘integration’, which in Europe had often meant language and ‘values’ education, was rapidly redefined around its most important meaning: inclusion in the country’s economy, education and housing.

Immigration agencies, which previously saw themselves as gatekeepers who slowly filtered the most desirable and well-off people from candidate lists, suddenly found “renewed appreciation for low-skilled migrant workers in critical roles” and often invested in charter flights. and instant naturalization invitations to fill gaping gaps in the economy with these people.

Countries that have embarked on this overhaul are, in this year of runaway recovery, generally having less trouble with shortages and inflation than countries that have stuck to their old ways. And, thanks to the complete reinvention of their immigration bureaucracy, they have been able to respond better – and with less hassle or controversy – to the millions of Ukrainian refugees they now face.

Few will publicly credit that a deadly pandemic made them better at their jobs. But they could.

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Ashley C. Reynolds