Sunday, July 20, 2008


At a recent meeting with a friend, she told me that in her immediate neighbourhood there were 240 agencies. If any of these agencies were effective at what they did, there wouldn't be a need for so many of them. She lives in Toronto and is self-employed in the arts. Her skills are such that she can make this into a self-sufficient enterprise, but the types of programs set up for entrepreneurs do not meet her needs -- so she continues to remain on ODSP. This was an interesting comment, because the next day on the bus I met another friend who referred to our COIN Niagara (now aptly named Niagara Employment Magazine), who commented that in it there were references to dozens and dozens of agencies set up to help people find work. She commented that the people who work in these agencies make good salaries - what are they actually doing to help people find jobs? This particular friend of mine is a typical over-skilled, over-educated person who works in a field beneath her to make ends meet ... and to even get THIS job, she has to commute to Toronto everyday. Not surprisingly, she still makes so little, that her husband who has medical problems, continues to qualify for some ODSP monies.

However, agencies continue to make money. They continue to rub elbows with the political and in some cases, the business elite, to make it look like something is being done about problems that lurk in our community. Their executive directors make between $50,000 a year for a small agency to over $150,000 a year for a larger one -- yet, despite all this money being poured into these organizations, there is little formal accountability. This does not mean that there are not some agencies that voluntarily subject themselves to a higher standard of accountability, but none of them are forced to. Politicians are unwilling to penalize agencies, even if they are not doing anything, because if they had to de-fund or penalize every agency that truly did nothing, it would be political suicide. Politicians rely on the very existence of these agencies to make it look like they are doing something to assist the less fortunate or disenfranchised. Because most members of the public do not have to rely on these agencies to get them out of serious life challenges, most people do not consider these accountability issues.

Accountability is only considered when it happens to you. If YOU are the one that was poorly served by an agency, or whose confidential information was improperly dealt with, or who did not get hired in favour of a candidate without any formal training, accountability tends to loom quite large. Unfortunately, there is none. You can complain, I suppose, to the executive director or to the board, but nine times out of ten, nothing changes. The agency prefers to operate its programs in a way that continues to maximize its funding, not its effectiveness. In fact, many agencies tend to "follow the funding" and apply for funds for programs that stretch or even exceed their mandate. You can complain to the funding agency or department, but nine times out of ten, this goes nowhere as well. Civil servants work for political masters who seek publicity and want to be seen as acting on important issues. The reality and the effectiveness of these actions are not left to question.

At the same time, these same governments, including the one here in Ontario, saw fit to regulate my profession (as well as a few others). The regulations on my profession were to "protect the public", as well as to provide some level of consumer confidence that when they come into my office, people can expect a certain level of service, a certain level of competence and a certain level of respect for the 'consumer'. I pay a lot of money to ensure that I remain in practice, let alone all my other costs I have to pay to keep the business running. People who get jobs at non-profits and charities are not asked about their level of education, their adherence to a mandatory code of ethics, the requirement they carry errors and omissions insurance, etc. While some are hired for the educational qualifications, others are not. No law says you have to have any education to run a non-profit. No law says you cannot have a criminal record or history in order to run a non-profit, although certain types of direct service workers may be required to submit to police checks (e.g. such as those workers and volunteers who work with children or older persons). However, nobody says a director cannot hire somebody who "fails" a police check. These things are still up the discretion of somebody within the organization. I've actually sat in meetings where a board actually decided it was okay to allow volunteers for a fundraising initiative whose police check included no violent or sexual offences, but may include offences related to fraud. Yet, if I had a rap for fraud, I may not be permitted to work in my own profession - despite the fact I net less money than the average worker in a non-profit setting.

I remember a conference I attended a couple of years back. As a part of this conference, several agencies were invited to give a fifteen minute presentation about themselves, as well as accept a couple of questions afterwards. Virtually none of these agencies really had an interest in ensuring people seeking work actually got it. Job placement, for some, was a priority, only because the funder made it that way ... unfortunately, their quest for job placement has made it extremely difficult for consumers with larger needs, bigger barriers or those with higher levels of skills and aspirations, to find assistance. They do not get paid to push for barrier removal. They do not get paid to seek higher paying employers and foster partnerships with them. They do not get paid to even provide pre-employment supports that some people need, especially if they were out of the workplace for so long. The agency can only see it as economically sound to make arrangements with large employers with many entry-level, high-turnover positions, to place their clients in. In other words, all the Wal-Marts, Starbucks, Loblaws, No Frills, hotels (e.g. cleaning staff), etc. can find placements this way. The service provider is not mandated to 'encourage' these employers to explore higher level positions for more skilled candidates or to even increase their pay for their entry candidates ... placement in ANY job = money.

For others, they are occupation-specific. That means, if you want to work in a call centre, answer phones at a customer service desk, or work in retail, this particular agency can work for you. This is the BUILT Network, although I am sure the BUILT Network is not alone in promoting and sending referrals to low-paid dead-end, often stressful jobs that rarely pay more than $8.75 to $10/hour. Some of the Goodwill programs are similar, except our local Goodwill is at least trying to get some people into the skilled trades. When one of their representatives appeared at the conference, I asked if they can confirm that the base pay rate for those they place was between $8-$10 an hour. She advised me it was. I then asked if SHE would do HER job for $8-$10 an hour ... probably not, she said. At least she was honest. For somebody who likely earns a good middle-class salary placing people into low-wage jobs, it is probably not much of an ethical consideration it is for her than it is for me, and probably for many others.

The unfortunate thing is these are the agencies that continue to relentlessly take millions of dollars from the taxpayers to achieve what is likely very little. All of these programs claim high placement rates. There is no way anybody can disprove these high placement rates, unless every single one of their clients signed a waiver and were willing to be interviewed on the spot as to whether or not they got a job from the program, as well as to verify each success with their respective employers. So, it is quite easy to lie or fudge statistics. To me, if an occupation-specific job program wants to continue, it should not be funded by the public. Instead, it should seek financial support from its employers. For example, if you are a call centre and want to accept ten people from that program to join your firm, you should be permitted to have a say as to who enters and the composition of the training initiative, and then pay a "tuition fee" for each participant they wish to train. That way, they will have invested in the program and be invested in hiring the said people. The way it is now, none of these employers have to accept anybody they churn out, as is likely the present case. If they can't sell this program to employers, then the public shouldn't be paying for it either.

The public and non-profit/ charitable sector has a major accountability problem. This is not because these organizations are inherently less competent or the people in charge don't know as much about their job as the people in private businesses, for example. It is because there are no 'market forces' in play for the public and not-for-profit sectors. At least if you don't like McDonald's, you can always go to a Burger King, a Wendy's, an Arby's or a Harvey's, or even Taco Bell. If you don't like the coffee at Tim Horton's, you can always go to Starbucks or Coffee Time, or even have a coffee at any of the myriad of mom and pop cafes in your community. Because of this competition, each of these businesses are under pressure to provide a good service to the customer, so the customer returns and/or refers other customers. In the non-profit sector, there isn't a lot of choice ... while there are some specialty agencies, such as those serving immigrants, there are really no competitive forces at play to ensure whatever agency you go to, is under any kind of pressure to keep you happy enough to prevent you from going elsewhere.

Further, there are some options for consumers who may have been injured or not served properly by a private business. For example, if you go to a Wal-Mart to get your oil changed and then as you drive your car out, your engine blows, there is some accountability there on the part of Wal-Mart if a connection can be made with the work done there. If you hire a contractor to fix your bathroom, but the company takes forever to acquire supplies, tears up the bathroom, ruins the plumbing and makes your home unliveable and still fails to complete the job in a reasonable time or with good workmanship, there are a number of options to take. If your contractor is a plumber, there is a technical safety inspection program. There is a Better Business Bureau. There is also small claims court. In certain cases, you can even make a claim on the company's insurance policy.

Not so for non-profits. If you are unhappy with their service, there really is nowhere to complain, let alone get actual redress. You can't really take the Job Action Centre to small claims court because they failed to provide the service. We don't have an ombudsman of any type that can review and oversee the resolution of complaints against publicly-funded services. As suggested earlier, you can go to the board or the executive director, but it is not likely anything will be achieved. Many of these programs do get audited, but the results of these audits are generally not available to the public (nor can you as a consumer give any input into such an audit). Many of these audits as well are not based on value for money or actual program effectiveness. They are usually just based on whether the non-profit spent its money in accordance to the way it promised when it signed the funding contract, which means basically nothing for the unserved consumer.

For "generic" or "demographic-based" programs, it is probably harder to subscribe to an employer buy-in, as these agencies seek a variety of types of jobs and likely work with many employers. However, it is fact that the increasing demand for accountability has actually brought in the wrong kind of incentives to these agencies. More and more agencies are only getting paid once the client is placed in a job and keeps that job for a certain length of time. On the surface, it looks good. If the agency sits on its butt, it gets nothing. However, this actually diminishes the quality of the jobs that people get. Such agencies will not work with clients with significant employment barriers (as barriers take too long to negotiate and remove) or persons with higher skill levels and aspirations than a low-paid entry level job (as this requires actual work and substantial education of employers to even consider opening up their higher paid positions to these people).

I've been to agencies as well that may not necessarily be paid on a per-placement basis, but the incentive I noted is to get me out of there as fast as possible. They'd give me references to jobs that I could find in any newspaper or job board, and then told to apply for them, even though I couldn't apply for most of them. They have no time to work with employers either to remove obvious barriers they put into place to keep the "uncleansed" out of their workplaces, e.g. no time to confirm why an employer is demanding a driver's license and a car for a job that likely doesn't require you to drive anybody anywhere. They expect the candidate to work out these details, which is likely to be unsuccessful, particularly when the employer can actually hire somebody else that can drive. It is obvious that the agency I was working with is unfamiliar with the Human Rights Code and the precedent for bona fide occupational requirements. To their misfortune, they probably believe most employers are in compliance, when in fact, the opposite is true.

While people like me, and countless others, are trying to get help at these various agencies, the staff that work there continue to earn decent middle-class salaries. Their performance is not reviewed on the basis of their successes, but on how well they meet the agencies' own agenda. Staff at some of these agencies are not even required to be trained or educated in any particular field, although some others are more careful regarding qualifications. Or, even when they do want qualifications, they may be asking for the wrong ones ... for example, social workers should not be administrators or executive directors, although in many of the direct service jobs, a social work background is useful. My background that made me qualified as an executive director includes business, financial planning and management, human resources, sociology (which includes quite a bit of background in evaluation and research design), public relations and communications. Most social workers are not trained in these areas. When I was an executive director, I hired staff that were not only trained in their specific jobs, but also had a track record in doing this work for others. If two or more appeared equally qualified, I picked the one with the best communications and people skills.

There are consumer organizations and even some individual consumers that detest my bias in this direction. They favour "life experience" over credentials. I always ask them without ever getting any appropriate answer as to exactly WHAT is "life experience" and how can one person's "life experience" be compared to another person's "life experience", particularly if the two are from the same demographic, e.g. disability, gender, culture. Further, they couldn't tell me how any kind of "life experience" teaches people how to plan for and manage multi-million dollar budgets, manage human resources, acquire a skilled workforce, develop and deliver an effective program, or even provide effective "spokepersonship" for the demographic. Because marginalized people often think very few of their peers are educated or qualified for anything, they think it's okay to hire somebody with no skills or education to "speak for" other marginalized people, including those among the marginalized that are. As somebody who is better educated, when I ever made representations on behalf of an organization I worked with, it was done in consultation with a substantial portion of its members, as well as an attempt at getting voices from people who were not members, but shared the same issues.

It is a difficult balance to strike. At the ODSP Action Coalition, we strive to speak for all people involved with ODSP recipients as well as the full range of ODSP recipients themselves. I have been forceful in my own advocacy efforts (without an organization at times) on pushing for reforms that benefited people without children (though I have kids myself), benefited people that are not well-educated (e.g. better user friendly materials, better access to programs that meet the needs of people with multiple issues, better access to education and training to secure better jobs), as well as programs for those that are well-educated, as well as people from different cultures and religious backgrounds (though I have no real cultural leanings given the absence of family of origin influence and I don't consider myself religious, although I recognize many people are).

It is a major fact that people with education and previous mid-level and senior job experience who are now unemployed and/or disabled, that they are ignored and marginalized ... even from within their own demographic communities. Some single disability communities, such as mainstream psychiatric survivor organizations, are actually anti-credential in nature, under the false impression that one cannot be well educated and qualified AND suffer from a major mental health disorder. Most of such persons that do get into senior positions in these organizations are eventually pushed out by somebody without any qualifications. I am aware of at least seven or eight major cases where this happened in Ontario, although if anybody asked a psychiatric survivor leader if this happens, they will deny it. Their victims become invisible and without a voice, which is the desired objective of these types of groups -- as those with the ambition to gain the title without the responsibility are certainly not going to care if they hurt anybody else on their way up. With cross-disability organizations and coalitions, their expectations vary ... because many such organizations also try to engage people who have become disabled later in life, as well as injured workers, many of whom may actually be quite skilled.

Anti-credentialism is anti-accountability and anti-transparency and anti-ethical. Because those who acquire positions without having proper training fail to understand the importance of many requirements, such as the right to confidentiality and the right to open and democratic processes within an organization, these organizations are even less likely to achieve their objectives. This is also ignored by politicians because politicians do not want to look like they are "attacking the consumers" or are "anti mental health" or whatever they might be seen as if they do decide to withdraw money from an organization, although in rare instances, it has happened (but I can count the number of times on my left hand when this happened for reasons other than political objectives ... such as ensuring a "politically friendly" or a "harmless" group of people get preference for funding as opposed to a group of people who might actually influence or force things to change).

To me, if non-profits want regular funding, they must be regulated -- period. Regulation simply means setting standards. Standards are different for each profession, some are tougher, some are less strict -- depending on the educational requirements and complexity of the job involved. A non-profit should be considered the same ... set minimum educational requirements for all positions. It may not necessarily be a specific type of education, unless the non-profit was involved specifically in something regulated, like child protection. For those involved in employment services, the candidate MUST have a university degree or education that leaves them with skills and knowledge in the following areas: human resources, labour law, human rights, marketing, communications, etc. Not all of this comes from a degree, of course ... but this is usually a foundation, then after that would be one's actual experience, both volunteer and paid or even as a self-employed business person.

For candidates without degrees, their skills and references need to be more closely scrutinized and proven. Sometimes, a position calls for business and marketing knowledge, for example, and a candidate without post-secondary education comes in strong because they worked for twenty years in a successful family business. In certain circumstances, the professions also consider these things as part of their admissions process. One year, the Law Society of Upper Canada came under scrutiny because it chose to admit about a dozen candidates who failed their bar admissions. These candidates were able to be admitted under other criteria that proved they were equally capable of performing the work required under a license. Some people just can't handle tests. In fact, the Law Society regularly admits people that do not always fit neatly in their licensed structure. There is an increasingly common provision for something called "peer review" in other professions, where an individual would perform under a few seasoned professionals and then later evaluated for the delivery of their services. Teaching is an example of where this provision might work well. However, despite their admission, all licensees are required to continue to upgrade and educate themselves in their fields.

In my own view, if the government wanted to discourage people from dropping out of high school, none of them should be able to access ANY publicly-funded job, even as a janitor at the school board, until they graduate or obtain an equivalency. The private sector can still hire them, as they have the market forces to contend with ... if they hire incompetent people, the business suffers. It is the investors choice as to how much risk they want to take. In the public and not-for-profit sector, because there is no market forces and little choice for those that need the services downloaded upon them by the government, standards must be in place. In addition to minimum educational requirements, a code of ethics must be drawn for all workers and tailored to the specific areas that they work in. There must also be a body to which to complain and get support. Because there is no such body to complain, many non-profits continue to practise nepotism, hire their own "friends" and not bother to perform at their top level (because after all, if people complain, nothing will happen anyways ...). They should also be insured personally in certain jobs, or bonded in others.

Under this new regulatory regime, personal information collected by an organization's worker will be protected and the worker that is careless in dealing with it CAN be penalized. The worker that fails to serve a certain person because it is not economical or it is too difficult to find a higher paid job for them, etc. (whatever their excuse is) may be FORCED to help or lose their own job and license to work in this field. This doesn't necessarily mean that the worker MUST be successful everytime, as lawyers who are licensed do lose cases too and this doesn't hurt them (unless the loss was caused directly by negligence). Doctors are also not expected to cure everybody either, but they are supposed to try. Accountability does not mean guaranteed results. It means guaranteed effort and professionalism in the delivery of services, while respecting the individual. Yes, many non-profits do hold themselves to voluntary high standards. I am asking for this to be a requirement.

Until then, I really don't choose to use a lot of services unless it can be shown to me that the agency is actually delivering on their promises (e.g. finding people housing, finding people jobs that match the person's skills and abilities, assisting people in accessing disability supports). I want a say in the agency's future without having to join their board or make friends with the senior staff. I want the power to control what is done with my information and how I am treated when I go to these types of places. I don't think I want anything more than anybody else does. I just think that politicians have to start demanding that agencies deliver ... until then, there will never be any accountability, transparency or in relevant cases, democratic processes within.

1 comment:

wh said...

Bravo Angela. Good comments and ideas. Sorry I couldn't post more. I can't book enough time at the local library computer.