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Human-focused research in action:

Social Service North Ontario

Can social services shift from addressing poverty as the

place of last resort, to becoming a place of first response?

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The Needs of the People.

The Ontario Works social service programs had become a place of last resort for those suffering from addiction and/or mental illness as they struggled to find a footing in the working world. The recidivism rate for programs offered was nearing 99%.

​At the beginning of our partnership, Ontario Works had two goals in mind: to understand the impact of that situation on the communities they service, and how to provide those services in a more effective, less stigmatized manner.

Big Human worked together with management teams and front-line workers to understand areas of conflict, miscommunication, and inefficiency— and helped to implement short and long-term changes that are addressing those needs today.

Social Service Design | Michael Davisburchat and Big Human Change
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A Stark Reality.

We weren’t going to "solve" poverty.  

Instead we brought our experience in boots-on-the-ground, first-person research, which we used to ground the project from day 1 in direct, observable evidence. We spoke with 25+ stakeholders, including front-line workers and at-risk clients, to figure out what was going right, what was going wrong, and where the organization could go from there.

Next we collected our findings (digitally recorded) and developed them into a Research Library to be accessible for every member of the Sault Ste. Marie team. 

With the library done, we moved to the work of discovering missing metrics, our term for the pieces of data and information that can go overlooked in favour of symptoms that are more easily visible— but which can often go farther in telling the whole story. In the case of Sault Ste. Marie, we strove to explore beyond the 99% rate of recidivism, and gain an understanding of the demographics, life conditions, and ongoing patterns that can contribute to persistent poverty.  Throughout the process, we continued to conduct design service training workshops- inclusive and friendly co-design sessions we used to impart long-term strategies for adapting to change. 

“I think this is what progress feels like.

When I heard that from one of my employees participating in the service design workshop I knew we won. For a couple of years now, our team has been modernizing the very idea of what it means to provide social service in Northern Ontario. Working with Big Human enabled us to transition from being a place of last resort to a place of first response both as an organization and through the service we provide our community.'

- Mike Nadeau (CAO of Social Services, Sault Ste. Marie) 


At the peak of our work, Big Human presented 68 recommendations for changes in service and culture to benefit the clients of Ontario Works. 


By the end of the project we had consolidated that work to a list of 8, which are being implemented today in addition to the Big Human-led redesign of OntarioWorks offices in Sault St. Marie.

As of now our work continues with social services administration boards across Ontario.

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