211 Rises to the Challenge: A COVID-19 Success Story

Par Kristin Nelson , Director for 211 Saskatchewan
Par Lynn Gidluck , Researcher
14 July 2021

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211 is a free and confidential information and referral service that helps people make sense of social, health, and government services information that is often buried on websites, social media channels, e-newsletters, and spread throughout the network of partners and community leaders. These services include food and shelter, mental health support, financial services, resources for seniors and students, and much more.

  • Kristin Nelson is Director for 211 Saskatchewan.
  • Dr. Lynn Gidluck leads the University of Regina’s Community Engagement and Research Centre.
  • Brendan Anderson was a senior undergraduate student hired by Nelson and Gidluck to help with the first phases of a research project exploring the role provincial 211 systems can play during large scale emergencies.

Discussion: 211 and COVID-19

When members of the 211 Canada Leadership Table met in Edmonton on October 21, 2019 for their yearly in-person meeting, they had no idea their discussion with researchers funded by the Canadian Philanthropy Partnership Network (PhiLab) would foreshadow an intense period of growth, collaboration and recognition for the value they could play in emergency management.

“Our goal was to look at lessons learned from natural disasters like the 2013 floods in southern Alberta and the wildfires in northern Alberta in 2016 and British Columbia in 2018,” said Nelson. “We knew that 211 operations played important roles during these regional emergencies and other more localized, but still significant events in other areas of the country.”

Nelson said her small 211 Saskatchewan team knew it was not really a matter of “if” but “when” they might face similar challenges. “We thought there were a lot of lessons we could learn from our colleagues in other jurisdictions that might help us, and other teams like ours that were still in the start-up phase of operations with their planning. Why reinvent the wheel if we can put processes in place before disaster hits?”

The original intention was for this project to be completed by the spring of 2020. The discussion panel in Edmonton (attended by thirteen individuals) was followed up with 13 individual interviews, conducted by Anderson, with provincial 211 representatives between late October of 2019 and early March of 2020.

“Our plan was to present our findings during a local event we would convene in Regina as part of Emergency Preparedness Week (a national event that traditionally takes place during the first full week of May),” said Gidluck.

Those plans changed once it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had set the stage for 211 organizations across the country to prove how valuable they could be to the emergency management ecosystem during one of the greatest challenges in the country’s history.

“In light of this new reality, our focus expanded to documenting the role of 211 during the pandemic and the lessons that can be learned about the collaborative efforts and collective response to the emergency,” said Gidluck.

In March of 2020, as COVID-19 cases spread across Canada and the world shut down, staff working for 211 jumped into action. Demand for 211 services skyrocketed. Across the country Service Navigators found they were dealing with a high number of individuals who had never used 211 services before but suddenly found themselves in need of support due to the effects of the shutdown.

One of the immediate challenges was to make sure that 211’s resource lists, containing information on available services was kept up-to-date.

“This was a real challenge when even simple information, like whether an organization was open or closed, was changing on a daily basis,” said Nelson. “At the same time, new community initiatives appeared spontaneously in response to COVID-19. Thousands of records had to be updated and new entries added as the community came together to offer much needed support.”

211 - Help Starts Here

The 211 Canada Leadership Table began meeting bi-weekly to discuss ways to collaborate, to share what they were learning with each other, to strategize ways to develop new partnerships, and discuss ideas to seek new funding to deal with increased need.

At a system’s level, 211 Teams participated in community response tables, helping to flag emerging needs and trends by sharing the stories their Service Navigators were hearing—all the while advocating for needed services and supports within their communities.

“The data that 211 collects from contacts—which include calls, texts, and website clicks—illuminate needs that are not being met on a community basis,” said Nelson. “These insights allow decision makers to direct scarce resources to where they are needed most.”

The value of 211 was recognized by federal and provincial governments with new funding to help expand it across all regions of Canada via the United Way Centraide Canada network. Funding was also provided to support surges in demand for existing 211 services.

Prior to this expansion, 211 was only available in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and most of Quebec, and was only online in Manitoba. With the new one-time emergency funding, 211 became available in Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba (phone), New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador. In Quebec, services were now available in the Greater Montreal area, and in the Capitale-Nationale and Chaudière-Appalaches areas, online and chat service available across the province rolled out the following month.

This meant that for the first time, anyone living in Canada could now pick up the phone and dial 211 to reach a Service Navigator for information on community-based health, social and government services in or near their community.

United Way Centraide Canada, its counterparts across the country and regional and provincial 211 organizations are working hard to make the case for sustainable funding to maintain the national expansion.

“We hope our research will help with advocacy efforts by documenting the critical role 211 played during the pandemic and can play in future crises,” said Gidluck.

“Now that the worst part of the pandemic seems to be over, our goal is to convene the 211 Leadership Team in the fall for a round table discussion similar to the one we started our project with. This time it will probably happen over Zoom,” said Nelson. “Over the summer we will ask members of the 211 team to reflect on the following questions: What do you think were the biggest accomplishments (provincial and national) during the pandemic? What were the greatest challenges or disappointments? And, what do you think should be done differently if another large scale emergency happens?”