December 5, 2012 by Ceris Ontario
By: Diane Dyson
Social networks are increasingly recognized as an important missing ingredient when creating sustained change. So, last spring, when Raluca Bejan approached the Toronto-area Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs) with that as a research idea, the Toronto East LIP, in the east end of the old city of Toronto, quickly volunteered to be her research subject.
The LIPs were created with the goal of making more welcoming communities for newcomers, helping them to settle in our communities and integrate into the labour market. To do this, local service providers, from libraries and schools to settlement agencies and employment centres met to explore how to better coordinate services.
Our belief, as we undertook this work at WoodGreen Community Services with other agencies in the east end of Toronto was that we needed to build a stronger network among service providers. Our premise was a strengthened professional network would foster two key underpinning structures: information flow and trust. This in turn should lead to better coordination, more partnerships, and positive outcomes for newcomers.
Much of the work we had done over the course of the two-year project focused on regular information exchange and identifying common challenges where we could focus our efforts. Regular meetings and targeted workgroups enabled LIP partners to work together regularly.
So, we submitted to the research, filling in long lists and charting the connections among more than 150 participants in the east-end LIP. It turned out to be a little more boring than one might be expect of cutting edge research which is carried out at Harvard, but almost half of LIP members responded. We poured through lists of colleagues, marking how we knew each other and sorting each other according to their kind of work relationship.
What we found is heartening:
The LIP partnership bridged front-line staff and managers, connecting multiple local agencies, funders and service providers, and created space and time for people to coordinate services and plan future projects.
In a particularly heartening twist for Toronto, the social network mapping exercise also found that people of colour were not marginalized because of race. They were dispersed throughout the social network maps, as likely to hold key connecting positions as others.
And then the research project got interesting:
Citizenship Immigration Canada announced a shift in Toronto from 15 neighbourhood-based LIPs to four larger, regional ones. LIP staff were sucked out of their positions, and what was at first a hypothetical exercise took on new meaning.
In the neighbourhood-based LIP, its staff comprised 16% of individuals within the network. Yet, when they were removed from the network map, half of the Partnership’s network connections disappeared. LIP staff had supported 702 of the 1466 linkages across agencies and sectors, three times their proportional representation within the network. Without their presence, several stakeholders became completely isolated from the network, overall network density decreased (fewer people were connected to each other), and the average path link (degrees of separation) increased by 17%. The importance of project staff dedicated to building collaborative work was not only underscored, but quantified.
The Regional LIPs, with fewer staff, have had to re-build the connections that the Neighbourhood LIPs had.
Bejan’s research, with Metastrategies’ Chris Black, confirmed that effective government/community programs require strong social networks among those who do the work. Yet, in these times of restraint, funding for better service coordination is being lost. Program funding focuses on the “widgets” produced, the raw number of clients served, and managers, funded by outputs, are trained on the bottom line.
Bejan has shown the difference that staff dedicated to building partnerships can make in a complicated system like Toronto; she has shown that small and personal works, even in a large system; she has shown that information flows are key to better coordination, better targeted programs, and better outcomes.
This report is remarkable because it shows that there is a way to make a complex system work: create a place for people to work together and dedicate staff resources to it.
Media release, October 30, 2012
Report, Meta Strategies
About the blog author.
As a community-based researcher, Diane is interested in issues of neighbourhoods and poverty. Currently, Diane is Director, Research & Public Policy at WoodGreen Community Services, a large neighbourhood-based multiservice agency. Her most recent publication there is a Community Hubs: A scan of Toronto. As a research analyst at United Way Toronto, she co-authored the Losing Ground report and assisted in the development of the Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. She is currently a community member on the Research Ethics Board for Humanity at the University of Toronto and is a former member of the Social Planning Toronto Board. Diane regularly blogs at http://www.belongingcommunity.wordpress.com and tweets at @Diane_Dyson.