In 1921, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Christian Lous Lange stated: “Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.”
A century later — in a digital landscape where technology giants strive to “move fast and break things,” according to Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg — we see an acceleration in the use of technology to address the most human of problems, including in the areas of homelessness and child welfare.
In our digital era of public management, firmly held convictions about how technology can improve the delivery of public services may compel governments and policymakers to embrace new tools without evidence and enough reflection on the challenges they can cause.
For two years, our research team at Trent University has been speaking with people working in homeless-serving and child welfare organizations in Ontario to learn how they experience Canada’s digital turn in service delivery.
Our aim is to foster critical engagement with new technologies in support of client welfare. Our work has uncovered how a focus on technological fixes can serve to obscure the root causes of social issues. We’ve also learned the technological solutions themselves often fail to improve the efficacy of public sector work.
These challenges result from structural factors like poverty and limited affordable housing; the ongoing impacts of colonization; system failures as people leave institutions (including jails, hospitals or foster care/group homes) and experience a lack of public supports; and personal circumstances like physical or mental health conditions, domestic violence or individual crises.
To be effective, responses to homelessness and child welfare concerns must therefore address a decades-old erosion of affordable housing, social services and mental/physical health supports while incorporating a decolonial lens.
As of last year, the province of Ontario has also directed all service managers to implement what’s known as a By-Name List, compiling real-time information about every person experiencing homelessness in their community.
Starting in 2014, Ontario’s child welfare system committed $122 million to develop the Child Protection Information Network (CPIN), a digital database that all children’s aid societies were expected to adopt to organize their data practices.
Like a By-Name List, CPIN is supposed to provide real-time information on families and youth across children’s aid societies in a standardized form.
Both Coordinated Access and CPIN rely on standardized assessment tools and centralized digital information management systems to rationalize how resources are allocated and deliver services.
Reframing the problem
Technical solutions like co-ordinated access systems and CPIN are presented as a way to improve economic oversight and government accountability.
The emphasis on data sharing, co-ordination, objective assessments and prioritization suggests “the problem” is in social services due to a lack of organization, worker bias, regulatory compliance failures, bureaucratic sluggishness and inequitable/inefficient distribution of resources.
But what if this characterization is wrong?
None of the aforementioned objectives of co-ordinated access systems or CPIN in and of themselves address the scarcity of resources and the systematic erosion of the public safety net.
In fact, when it comes to a dearth of resources, Employment and Social Development Canada explains that if Coordinated Access is “implemented successfully, communities will be able to explain how clients are prioritized for limited resources.”
However, in both child welfare and homeless-serving organizations, insufficient resources have remained so, and the government’s technology and managerial promises have proven misleading.
The organizational adjustment to co-ordinated systems is massive. As the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies states: “CPIN requires every department in an agency to move to new business processes that are consistent across the province.”
Adopting Coordinated Access and maintaining a By-Name List has also proven to be a complex endeavour for service providers.
Clients and workers in child welfare and homeless-serving organizations have been telling us that the new systems are cumbersome, time-consuming, resource-intensive and have yet to deliver on their promises. As one frontline worker explained:
“You’re just constantly clicking, constantly repeating yourself. And important information isn’t easy to find.”
Increasingly, time and resources are being directed towards maintaining and navigating infrastructure and measuring compliance, not improving client well-being or service quality.
From our interviews, we learned that only 14 per cent of workers’ requests to improve CPIN’s ability to support client well-being or service quality have been instituted since its inception, partially because programmers are required to prioritize requests by government to align the system with legislative changes.
And in Peterborough, Ont. — the location of our lab and an early adopter of the By-Name List — fewer than five per cent of people on the list were offered housing through it in 2022.
While technology can be a useful tool, it can also divert funding and attention from the root causes of the issues it aims to address. Instead of focusing on resource shortages, professional support, relationality and human well-being, Coordinated Access and CPIN rely on compliance, efficiency and a range of technical fixes as solutions.
In our digital era of public management, innovative approaches can be tempting to policymakers who want to do more with scarce resources. But as we work to support Canada’s fraying social safety net, we need to slow down and fix things by focusing less on new technologies and more on the people entwined in these systems, both workers and clients.
Ending homelessness and ensuring child and family well-being will require a commitment to decolonization and investments in housing, services and other forms of direct support. Technological solutions alone cannot deliver on these goals; worse, they may even detract from them.