Carleton prof creates plain-language guide for getting government aid

Blair CrawfordOttawa Citizen

People line up at a Service Canada office in Montreal on Thursday, March 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
People line up at a Service Canada office in Montreal on Thursday, March 19, 2020. PAUL CHIASSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Carleton University professor has created a plain language guide to help those trying to access government programs in the time of coronavirus.

Jennifer Robson has studied how government communicates in her academic work as an associate professor in political management. Robson, who spent six years on Parliament Hill as a staff member to MPs, then worked in the non-profit sector before joining the university, says governments are poor communicators.

“The people who are experts on these programs inside government, see the information they’re putting out and they think it’s clear. But they are seeing it as experts as opposed to lay people who don’t normally have to think about these things and who are stressed,” she said.

“The way that government communicates information is not usually the way that Canadians can understand it. They talk different languages.”

Robson’s posted a Google Document online with straightforward instructions on how to apply for things like Employment Insurance, Caregiver Benefits, rent subsidies and others. She answers questions like: “I’m self-employed. What benefits can I get?” and “I am at home because my kids cannot go to school or daycare. I need money to make ends meet.”

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You can find Robson’s guide here in PDF form here:

“I’m hearing from people in MPs offices, national organizations, people who run national retail chains…. They have questions about these benefits and they’re using my document. In some cases they’re coming to me directly and asking if I can help with their personal circumstances. It’s heartbreaking.”

Robson says she can’t offer the one-on-one support many people are pleading for. She’s also realized “I’m a really bad IT person.”

“I’m doing the best I can, but I’m just one person working from home with my kids and trying to keep my other job. I can’t be doing personal financial coaching.”

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The situation was made even worse by the government’s decision Thursday night to close Service Canada outlets. Robson has had to revise her document to reflect that.

“There is a vast gap between government putting information on a website and it actually getting into the hands of someone and have them have their personal circumstance understood and their personal questions answered,” she said.

“When Service Canada offices are now closed, when 1-800 lines are completely overrun, government really needs to be reaching out to the bigger networks of non-profits, MPs’ offices, city council offices, 211 services so that there is no wrong door. So that any Canadian, no matter where they’re living, who is just trying to get some basic information about what these benefits are, can figure out how to apply to them. That’s not just going to be handled by a 1-800 call centre. They won’t be able to keep up.”

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