How better data can help parents looking for child care.

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COVID put a spotlight on women’s participation in the workforce and the role of child care as a key driver of Canada’s economic and social recovery. Pandemic pressures with school closures and the downturn in sectors predominantly staffed by women forced an unprecedented number of women with children to quit working. This decline has also drawn attention to the inherent weaknesses in child care and the challenges Canadian families face. It has also intensified the crisis for those working in child care, with critical staff shortages, the loss of regulated spaces and a potential permanent loss of capacity.

An affordable national child care program has long been discussed in Canada. It was first recommended in 1970 by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. Fifty years later, the Liberal government in its budget 2021 committed $30 billion over five years to deliver a national system providing child care for an average of $10 per day, a 50 per cent reduction in fees in all provinces except Quebec, by 2022. Historic agreements have recently been signed with the provinces of British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Canadian parents today navigate a fragmented system where wait times and child care costs vary considerably across the country. Quality is not easy to discern or compare, with additional barriers such as access experienced by those with different cultural backgrounds, special-needs requirements and irregular hours of care. There are also significant data gaps in the services available, making it difficult for anyone to know how well the system is meeting the needs of families.

An approach that mobilizes local and provincial governments and organizations to work together to achieve a common goal, enabled by technology, will result in a more cohesive, connected and co-ordinated network to simplify access for parents. It will also build the needed data infrastructure necessary to inform government investment decisions and measure outcomes.

Achieving the federal promise of $10 a day child care for all parents that want it depends on implementation where responsibility for child care resides, at the provincial and territorial level, and with Indigenous Peoples who provide their own service planning and delivery of programs. Using data will help inform how the agreements can best be structured between the various levels of governance and will assist with implementation across jurisdictions.

Ontario provides an example of what a good data-based program can do for parents looking for child care. In 2013, Ontario was in its third year of its full-day kindergarten rollout. The Region of Waterloo, the Waterloo Region District School Board and Waterloo Catholic District School Board worked with OneHSN to provide a single point of access for all families to apply for child care and extended day programs. We wanted to give them a seamless access to find the services that met their needs while providing data for administrators to efficiently and effectively plan during a period of significant transformation and modernization.

With detailed expansion plans and proper resources, registration grew from 2,600 children in 2013-14 across 63 schools, to more than 9,000 children at 110 schools across both school boards in 2020. Centralized registration provided equitable access for all parents, regardless of their needs, reduced administration cost for school boards and offered flexibility for parents to manage their own needs more efficiently.

It also revealed issues and barriers to access immediately. Parents had a trusted online source to find and evaluate child care options with an easier-to-navigate, more user-friendly experience. Providers saved valuable administration time through streamlined intake, waitlist management tools and digital tools for better communication.

Canadian data about child care programs is currently incomplete and available only in an ad hoc manner, to an extent, reflecting existing service fragmentation not unfamiliar in Canada. Much like health care, which is largely funded by federal transfers with services provided by the provinces, each with their own system, parents navigate many different systems for child care across the country. Subnational jurisdictions each have their own variations, along with regional differences and explicit distinctions between education and child care services provided before and after school, and in pre-school.

To achieve universal access for child care services at an average cost to parents of $10 per day, existing data-collection systems will need to be consistent, while respecting confidentiality, to provide comparability across provinces and territories. To create a national system, the federal government will need to set targets that will require provinces and territories to deliver relevant data on children and families served, service and administrative costs, capacity expansion targets and program outcomes. Automation of data integration will speed this process and ensure visibility across the landscape of services that need to be tracked and reported on. This capacity simply does not exist at the national level today.

Technology investment and government support for platform technologies that provide secure access for families and connect them to participating service providers also go a long way to providing legislators, policy-makers and funders with a much-needed adaptive model, with real-time analytics and insight. Automated data integration from multiple systems and analytics enabled by a platform provide a shared pool of data to drive new insights for all stakeholders and responsiveness previously not possible.

In Ontario, such a system was put in place to enable essential workers to have streamlined access to emergency child care (ECC). By rapidly adapting the existing registry and waitlist platform, access for parents was simplified, allowing them to self-identify as an essential worker, for example. The customized experience also allows parents to easily find and apply to providers approved to offer ECC.

Importantly, municipal service managers are able to gather and analyze real-time data about demand, inclusive of near daily changes to the eligibility criteria to triage access to space and expand services to meet parents’ needs with accuracy about what type of care and locations are most in demand. What started as an agile project with daily updates to respond to emerging legislation and local learnings quickly became a shared-best practice that has been quickly adopted by other service managers.

In all Ontario jurisdictions, demand has been overwhelming. Hundreds of qualified applicants within hours of the central registry going live set in motion immediate expansion plans for more providers to offer ECC with the additional insights of what type of care and where it was most needed. It is this real-time data, generated at the parent-provider interface, that has allowed municipalities to make faster and better decisions with data about needs, and to plan and deliver services with precision in co-ordination with the service providers.

Progress should not be constrained by the need for uniformity across jurisdictions. The benefits of using a versatile data-driven platform to administer a wide variety of regional differences in the child care system, including overlapping systems, while integrating local data and updating systems with improved data accessibility for all stakeholders, is the logical and best path forward.

There is no doubt that it will take some time, and considerable co-ordination for the implementation of a national child care system that meets the affordability target outlined by the federal government of $10 a day by 2022. Child care and the role that it plays in the lives of Canadian families across the nation is, by its very nature, complex with many layers and challenges that will require strong leadership on the part of all levels of government. A collaborative, data-driven system that is inclusive of the key stakeholders is the key to building the foundation for Canada’s national child care service and delivering on its promise.

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