A better way: Board Voice submission for Budget 2021

Board Voice puts in a submission every year to the BC Select Standing Committee on Finance and Governance, which seeks engagement leading up to the planning of the following year’s budget. Here’s what we had to say this time, which is such a revelatory year around social care because of the impact of the pandemic.

Thank you for the chance to provide input into priorities for the 2021 provincial budget. The following submission is from the Board Voice Society of BC, a non-profit umbrella organization for community-based non-profits around the province that are part of a vast and diverse network of local organizations providing social care services to hundreds of thousands of British Columbians.

We ask that this committee reflect on the many lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, and support Board Voice’s long-standing call for the development of a social policy framework to plan, guide and sustain better social health in BC.[1]

The absence of any such framework has been a concern for Board Voice and our members for many years now. The lack of one was evident in the variety of social crises that the pandemic laid bare – from the crisis in seniors’ care to the importance of our daycares and schools in the functioning of our economy; from the crisis in homelessness to a worsening of the opioid epidemic.

We’ve always said that people really have no idea of how important our largely invisible work is in the social services sector, and that they’d be surprised at the immense scope of it. That surprise went all the way up into government.

Nobody knew that there were 10,000 workers piecing together part-time jobs in long-term care and social services until the need to restrict job movement during covid brought that to light. Until there was a pandemic, our province didn’t grasp the impact of what it meant to have critically important services being done by people who are historically underpaid, undervalued, and with far fewer choices around whether to try to work while sick because their sick pay is either inadequate or non-existent. 

Until there was a pandemic, we didn’t think too much about the intricate connections between human services, and how the closing down of one kind of activity reverberated through any number of other services. Those reverberations revealed the layers of connection between our health, education and social-care systems, and how important all three are to BC’s economic health.

We plan, strategize for and sustain our health and education systems. We must do the same for social services. 

In the spirit of recovery and reinvention that will shape and shake BC in 2021 and the years to come, it’s the right time to bring thousands of community-based, community-led social services into an overarching framework for better social health and well-being. It’s the right time to build on government/non-profit partnerships on this front that are already underway in BC, such as the one-year-old Social Services Roundtable, and support work that will lead to a collaborative, non-partisan, outcomes-based framework for social services.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has awakened all of us to the realities of the importance of quick, co-ordinated and effective action to mitigate the widespread harms of a truly global disaster. We are so fortunate in BC to have had citizens, governments, MLAs and community-based organizations of all kinds step up to do what they could to minimize the diverse impacts of this unprecedented crisis. Board Voice has been so impressed with our own members’ innovations in the face of crisis, to ensure that those who depend on vital social services did not have to go without.

Unfortunately, the pandemic also highlighted every weakness. It highlighted the gaps in our knowledge and practices. The places where we hadn’t thought to plan. The intricate complexity and interplay of people’s social and health-care needs. Our society has tended to consider health care, social needs, economic health, educational services, transportation systems, reliance on foreign markets and travel habits as separate, unconnected things.  We certainly know otherwise now.

As noted above, foundational work that could lead to a social policy framework for BC is already happening through the work of the Social Services Roundtable. Since May 2019, this work has been bringing five ministries and government entities to the table with six umbrella organizations and other stakeholders with key roles in the delivery of social care in BC. The conversations around that table are about the issues that matter to all of us, and how to support, deliver and govern diverse community-based services that every British Columbian will rely on in their lifetime.

You will have heard from many other non-profits with many urgent needs, and we ask you to support these critically important community-based services that do the work of keeping us connected and striving to thrive. The crisis in Canada’s long-term care homes during the pandemic has opened our eyes to what can happen when social services end up in the hands of multinational corporations whose international shareholders demand profit. The non-profit model is a jewel for social care, and we urge you to support initiatives that help BC’s non-profit sector recover, including an emergency fund so that organizations can get help on all the many fronts that have been impacted by covid.

 We also ask that Budget 2021 support the ongoing work of the Roundtable, and the initiatives that emerge from it. Those initiatives include recruitment and retention, wage equity, human resources and contracting and procurement, to name a few.

Throughout this pandemic, that round table has held weekly calls to keep government and the social services sector connected and informed on impacts, public health directives, and how to maintain people’s vital social services – and the health of both clients and workers – at a time of quarantine, closure and fear.

But in the absence of a social policy framework, all of the work we’re doing right now to strengthen our social response in BC is at risk in every election cycle, every budget cycle. We could implement the best solutions ever tomorrow for addressing social concerns and maintaining strong community-based services, but none of it will last – or be measureable – without a framework to guide and sustain it.

This is an opportune moment to apply lessons from the pandemic to strengthen and improve a social services approach that we all know needs much work. Board Voice urges that when it comes to social care, we reject any talk of a return to “normal” after this pandemic, and instead seize this unique chance to create a structure and plan for social health services that we now all recognize as truly essential.

[1] Board Voice visited 17 BC communities as part of its work for the 2017 report, “There is a Better Way,” which made the case for improved community-based social care through development of a provincial social policy framework.