A digitally empowered, efficient, strategic and fair immigration system will be essential for Canada to meet its ambitious immigration target of 1.2 million new residents between 2021 and 2023.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is well on its way to making that happen. It was one of the first federal departments to work with the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) and to express enthusiasm for digital transformation. The COVID pandemic was a catalyst to move faster and address backlogs while responding to new travel and entry requirements.
In recognition of the department’s ongoing work internally and with partner organizations such as the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), IRCC has been recognized as a winner of the Canadian digital government community awards 2022, including excellence in innovation for its online citizenship test; excellence in open government for its digital application status trackers; and excellence in product management for its permanent residence digital intake portal.
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However, ongoing travel and border restrictions and other global concerns have slowed momentum. The federal government is investing hundreds of millions to modernize IRCC’s IT infrastructure to ensure those targets can be met in the face of these new realities.
Finland, the United States and Australia have all had success modernizing their immigration systems. Canada could look to their example for inspiration.
Finland: Ten years ago, the Finnish Immigration Service was experiencing process inefficiencies and significant backlogs, inspiring the start of its transformation journey. The service decided to develop a modern case-management tool to meet its demands. The result was the end-to-end electronic immigration case-management system.
The system integrates every process within the immigration, citizenship and asylum workflow. It moves from digital electronic submission through processing and communication to electronic archiving. There are 15,000 potential users based in Finnish government locations and offices across the globe. Authorities consider this project a best-in-class immigration management system.
It was subsequently expanded through the implementation of “EnterFinland” – an online self-service portal, designed for both residence permits and citizenship cases.
EnterFinland is a testament to cross-government collaboration, with solutions that have introduced supplementary chatbots and artificial intelligence applications into workflows across departments. Importantly, many departments had to come on board with the new system for it to be successful.
The United States: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been on a mission to become fully digital. Several programs were put in place to achieve that goal: the end-user experience design (EUXD) program and “myUSCIS” program. The EUXD program puts application users at the centre of design efforts. Working with the community helped enhance user experience, define proper project requirements and increase user adoption and satisfaction.
The myUSCIS program transforms the immigration process with a digital portal and digitized forms for paperless processing. The driving goal was to allow users to track progress during their immigration journey.
A recurring theme of each digital transformation was understanding that it would take more than a single technology or going paperless. It required a business transformation and cultural shift within the organization.
Accordingly, in Canada, by framing digital transformation efforts in terms of people, process and policy, IRCC will optimize its own transformation efforts.
Australia: Australia has kept its annual immigration target intake steady at more than 160,000 per year for a number of years. A decade ago, it embarked on a modernization effort. The “seamless traveler” vision was created in response to an increase in citizenship and online visa applications, increased processing times, resource challenges and security threats.
What officials learned was that digitizing processes weren’t enough to achieve operational efficiencies. New processes needed to be intuitive, and human-centred to empower the workforce. In October 2020, Australia introduced its reusable permissions capability, a platform that provides consistent processing, approvals and decision-making for departments who issue visas, permits, accreditation, licences and registrations.
The Australian Department of Home Affairs streamlined processes at the border by digitizing existing Incoming passenger cards. This included collecting additional health-related declarations and passenger contact information to support the national COVID response and speed up processing times.
There are three keys to success in Canada – people, process and policy.
Starting with the experience of the end user is essential. Technology adoption must be about meeting the applicants’ needs from their vantage point – pivoting existing processes to user-centric digital experiences, and then adopting the latest technologies that can deliver on those goals.
When thinking about a world-class immigration system from the perspective of those wishing to become Canadian, a system must be fast and efficient with information that is timely, and each step of the process well thought-out. It should be easy to use, with services and processes that are intuitive and accessible, and it should be able to understand and accommodate the needs of the applicant. The processes should also be fair and transparent, so applicants know the status of their file as it progresses.
Also, the right stakeholder groups must be included. The countries that had the greatest successes valued co-ordination.
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Grouping and classifying cases that are related – such as various categories relating to families – will mean that they can be processed more efficiently and will potentially address any biases. Government can then respond with digital systems that take into consideration variables including diversity, equity and inclusion, among others.
To realize a user-first vision, the government must fully embrace digital culture, tools and capabilities. This is no longer just an IT exercise. Every directorate and organization must become a digital organization for a workforce that is seamless in adopting new approaches and sharing information. As workforces become increasingly hybrid in nature, building the right digital culture and skills in the end-to-end organization will be essential.
Even if we fix technologies and create the best digital experience, none of that is useful unless the policy supports it. Given the transformative and disruptive nature of digital transformation, flexible policy is paramount to capture and respond to input from competing and changing priorities.
In Canada, we need to find a faster way to update policy. For instance, in the U.K., the government’s open innovation team follows a “policy at pace” style to actively engage citizen users.
Canada has a strong foundation and clear will to improve the ways it manages immigration and delivers user-centric digital experiences to newcomers as they navigate each step of their immigration journey. By considering lessons from around the globe, we can achieve a truly modern, innovative and world-class immigration system.