Canada’s immigration department is undergoing major changes

Kareem El-Assal
Published: October 3, 2023

Last week, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) implemented major changes as part of a new plan to improve its operations.

Earlier this year, a previous IRCC Deputy Minister, Neil Yeates, produced a report on how the department can become more effective and efficient. Yeates' report was commissioned by IRCC to evaluate whether the department's current structure best enables it to achieve its mandate. The Deputy Minister is the senior-most civil servant in a government department. Serving in a non-political role, they oversee the management of their department, including implementation of policies and strategies and managing people and budgets.

IRCC's current Deputy Minister, Christiane Fox, corresponds with the department's minister, who is a politician, and is currently Immigration Minister Marc Miller. The Immigration Minister's role is to implement the mandate of the elected government.

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Yeates: IRCC's organizational model is broken

In his report, which CIC News has been able to obtain a copy of, Yeates concludes "the current organizational model at IRCC is broken but is being held together by the hard work and dedication of staff."

Click here to read the report.

He recommends "a series of steps need to be taken to realign the organizational structure (including a major shift to a business line-based structure), reform the governance system, implement stronger management systems (especially planning and reporting) and facilitate the development of a culture to better support the department's goals and objectives (including consideration of an overall review of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and measures to better leverage the experience and expertise of diverse staff groups)."

Yeates explains there are numerous reasons why IRCC's current model is broken, but highlights two that stand out in particular: a difficult operating environment in Canada and globally; and secondly, IRCC has grown exponentially since its current organizational structure was introduced over 20 years ago. To highlight this point, Yeates notes IRCC's total workforce has grown from 5,352 employees in March 2013 to 12,949 employees as of January 2023.

Fox: IRCC "felt like crisis"

In an interview last week with journalist Paul Wells, Fox, stated the Yeates report will influence significant changes the department plans to pursue. Upon assuming her role at IRCC in July 2022, Fox explained to Wells the new job "felt like crisis" and that her colleagues at the department were under duress and exhausted. She concluded that departmental changes were necessary, and while she didn't want to make them immediately, she also didn't want to wait two years.

In June 2023, Fox had a plan of action after receiving the Yeates report and consulting with public stakeholders including IRCC applicants. Since then, she has been gradually rolling out the changes.

IRCC reorganized to business-line model

Among the changes is that last week, the department was re-organized across the following sectors:

  • Asylum and Refugees Resettlement
  • Citizenship and Passport
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Client Service, Innovation, and Chief Digital Officer
  • Communications
  • Corporate Services
  • Economic, Family, and Social Migration
  • International Affairs and Crisis Response
  • Migration Integrity
  • Service Delivery
  • Settlement Integration and Francophone Affairs
  • Strategic Policy

Fox explains that, as was recommended by Yeates, the department is now being organized across lines of business. What this means is IRCC employees will be divided across the various clients that the department services, as well as divided in a way to be responsive to changes around the world. For example, the department has a new International Affairs and Crisis Response sector, which Fox noted to Wells is meant to help IRCC better plan for humanitarian crises and shape a plan of action. IRCC routinely deal with these, such as with Ukraine since last year, and recent Afghanistan and Syrian refugee resettlement initiatives, just to name a few examples.

Fox also stresses the importance of IRCC taking more of a client focus moving forward whereby the department incorporates the experiences of its applicants more strongly into the decisions it makes.

IRCC's operating environment

Yeates elaborates on the various forces impacting IRCC, the main ones being:

Hybrid Work Environment and COVID-19: The nature of work appears to be changing permanently due to the pandemic, and as such, more workers, including IRCC employees, are working remotely, with a general direction to return to the office 2-3 days per week. Yeates explains while work-from-home has been effective, it remains to be seen what the impacts will be on IRCC's organizational culture.

Demand for IRCC Services: Demand for IRCC's programs often exceeds the department's processing capacity as measured by its service standards (the goals the department sets for itself to process applications for each line of business). Although IRCC has tools and resources at its disposal to manage its inventory, such as caps for certain programs, its inventories can grow very quickly whenever demand for its programs exceeds its processing capacity.

Growth of IRCC: As demand for IRCC's program has grown, so too has its workforce. Yeates characterizes its workforce as "medium sized" in 2013, with 5,217 non-executive staff, which has more than doubled by 2023 to 12,721 staff. Executives at the department have grown from 135 employees in 2013 to 227 today. However, despite the program and staff growth, the organizational structure at IRCC, which was designed for a smaller department, has largely remained the same.

Immigration Policy Review: The dominant immigration narrative in Canada has not generally been challenged, and that the actual impact of immigration is not generally well documented. As such, an immigration policy review at IRCC may be beneficial in helping IRCC shape the department's future direction.

Digital Transformation: IRCC has received significant funding for its Digital Platform Modernization, and such transformations are always challenging, particularly at a place like IRCC which has many significant responsibilities. However there is little doubt that IRCC needs to become a fully digital department.

Global Uncertainty: Global armed conflicts are on the rise, democracy is under threat, and factors such as climate change are impacting global demand to migrate, which will continue to have a significant impact on IRCC.

IRCC departmental culture is "committed"

While stressing the purpose of his report is not to be critical, Yeates observes IRCC currently has limited department-wide planning, lacks a multi-year strategic plan, and planning across the department is inconsistent, all of which pose a variety of challenges such as the inability to achieve the department's goals and lack of accountability among staff.

IRCC staff described the departmental culture as "committed, collaborative, and supportive", which has helped to overcome the department's organizational structure, governance, and management systems shortcomings.

Moreover, Yeates pointed to a tension within the department between what he calls the "IRPA school" and the "client service school." He observes that the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was introduced in 2001 with a framework to exclude applicants, with many reasons listed as to why an applicant may be denied. Immigration officers are trained to enforce IRPA, but little attention has historically been paid to the potential for these officers to have "unconscious bias" which may impact their decision-making.

On the other side are those who fall under the "client service school" and are willing to waive requirements and more open to compromise in order to improve the service that IRCC clients receive.

Highlights of Yeates' recommendations

Overall, Yeates makes recommendations across four areas: Organizational Structure; Governance; Management Systems; and Culture. Highlights of the recommendations are as follows:

Organizational Structure Recommendations:

  • IRCC move to a business line organization
  • IRCC develop protocols for crisis and emergency management that identify Assistant Deputy Minister leads in various scenarios

Governance Recommendations:

  • The Executive Committee assume responsibility for finance and corporate services and absorb the functions of the Corporate Finance Committee
  • A new Operations Committee be established, chaired by the Deputy Minister's Office, that will absorb the functions of the Issues Management Committee
  • That the membership of these committees be reconsidered as part of the re-organization process and that membership be no larger than 12
  • A review be conducted on the split of responsibilities between IRCC and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) under IRPA in order to rationalize and streamline roles and accountabilities

Management System Recommendations:

  • Deputy Minister lead a new planning and reporting regime
  • Develop a 3 to 5 year strategic plan
  • Undertake an annual planning cycle across all areas of the department, including HR, IT, Financial and Program plans
  • Implement a quarterly reporting regime
  • Ensure linkages with the department's performance management work

Culture Recommendations:

  • Undertake a review of IRPA to determine whether amendments should be made to better support desired outcomes, including improved service delivery.
  • Review the training provided to staff involved in the administration of IRPA to ensure if reflects the desired philosophy and approach of the department.
  • Examine means to integrate the voices of IRCC’s diversity communities into the departmental governance regime

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