Albertans Deserve Quality, Effective Social Services. But What Do We Mean By Effective?

15 October 2019

This year, Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC) had a revised Enough for All strategy to guide, steward, and establish with stakeholders how implementation would look different going forward.  Additionally, we also experienced a change in government and it’s evident from the United Conservative Party’s platform that they have plans to expand the non-profit social services sector.  This inevitably weaved its way into discussions with Enough for All Champions about our collective efforts to reduce poverty and, in the absence of a comprehensive evaluation, it is unclear if this move will result in quality and effective social services, arguably a higher priority.  Both our public and non-profit sectors have a role in the delivery of social services, so if those roles are not made clear there is a risk that the non-profit sector could be relied upon to cover areas with which they are not equipped for.

Many people and professionals have written on the state of Alberta’s social services and many have called for an evaluation in some form or another.  The Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) Lighting the Way: The state of the Alberta nonprofit sector reportCommunity Voices: Insights on Calgary’s Social and Human Services from People with Lived Experiences of Homelessness, and from the Alberta Views magazine The Social- Industrial Complex, an article that explores the social service delivery system in Alberta.

In the report by CCVO published this year, nonprofit leaders identified strategies to make the sector better, such as more collaboration, social innovation, and policy advocacy, however, one recommendation stands out.  It was a suggestion that funders act more like brokers between organizations to support collaboration rather than competition, and to explore amalgamation, dissolution, and the transferring of services.  The report also poses a contentious question:

“Among the successful organizations (those who are chosen for RFPs and financial gifts), is it because they deliver the most needed and best services?  Or is it because they have the best fund development and communication plans?”

The trouble is that we don’t know.  This same issue was further explored in the article “The Social Industrial Complex” written by Carissa Halton in 2012.  I first read this article when it was the topic of an online discussion board in grad school and I believe the concerns that were highlighted still stand today.  The article points out that we often don’t know who wins tenders, we don’t know the government’s contract scheme, and there is a lack of hard evidence to demonstrate how efficient the social services industry is or how effective its systems are.

This presents an opportunity, for non-profits to collaborate with the government on creating a new procurement model for the delivery of social services, a task that could be addressed by the yet to be created Premier’s Charities Council.  The council could also tackle a restructuring of existing funding models, which are fraught with problems.  Different definitions of success, excessive reporting and data collection is not only a heavy burden for staff but can leave the people receiving services feeling as though they are being constantly monitored and tracked.  And then there are the working conditions, quiet often non-profits are contracted to provide a range of programs and services similar to public institutions such as Alberta Health Services and Alberta Works like counseling, skills training, and health care, but without the funding to match public sector salaries and benefits.  This has led to a precarious work environment for many in the non- profit sector however for those working in homeless shelters, there are more serious issues.  A study by University of Calgary’s social work researcher Dr. Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff, PhD, and Athabasca University researcher Dr. Annette M. Lane, PhD, found that 33% frontline workers in homeless shelters suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as indicated in the study PTSD Symptoms, Vicarious Traumatization, and Burnout in Front Line Workers in the Homeless Sector.

Social need is not declining but before we move to expand the social service sector, let’s evaluate its current effectiveness, and co-develop a procurement model with common indicators of success and standardized evaluations.  This would be a tremendous accomplishment and would benefit not only the social services sector but all Albertans.