Volunteers play a critical role in the non-profit sector, lending their expertise on the board of directors, to fundraising campaigns and special events, and often working in direct contact with the people non-profit organizations exist to serve. In the justice sector, lawyers volunteer their time and expertise on the front lines providing pro bono legal information, advice, and representation to some of the most vulnerable individuals in our province. Volunteer lawyers are a vital piece of the work done by summary legal advice clinics that are offered by the community clinics across the province including Calgary Legal Guidance, Central Alberta Legal Clinic Foundation, Edmonton Community Legal Centre and Lethbridge Legal Guidance. Through these clinics over the last five years, hundreds of volunteer lawyers contributed over 34,000 hours of their time to serve 40,067 low-income Albertans.
Reflecting on the impact these volunteer resources have in our communities, the clinics came together in 2019 to take a deeper dive into the common outcomes data they had been collecting from clients who access clinic pro bono legal assistance. This included analyzing the way services are delivered to clients, identifying gaps and potential improvements to the summary legal advice clinic services offered, and understanding to what extent their common program outcomes are being met. To address these questions, volunteers from Data for Good were leveraged to explore the data and the story it told. These volunteers, together with the clinics, are now working to harness the power of their data through analytics and visualizations in order to continue to leverage the impact of pro bono legal services in the community.
This type of data collection, analysis and visualization is just one way in which legal service providers in Alberta are working to use their outcome data to improve their processes and service offerings. As evidenced in the report by the National Centre for Access to Justice (NCAJ) at Fordham Law School, Tracking Outcomes: A Guide for Civil Legal Aid Providers & Funders, “the value of outcomes data is in its potential to enable legal aid programs to understand the impacts achieved through their work, to improve the quality of their work, and to help explain the value of their work to the public.” This conclusion by the NCAJ can go beyond just legal aid program providers. Program outcomes can be applied more broadly in the sector and can include research institutes, public legal education and information providers, and other legal service programs. In some cases, these justice sector stakeholders are already applying the same principles of measuring their program outcomes for the purposes of improving their programs. In the justice sector community where the stakes are high, data-informed improvements to programs can lead to strengthened advocacy which can, according to the NCAJ, “enable people to preserve their homes, their relationships with their children, their life savings, their physical and emotional well-being, and even their freedom.”
The legal services landscape in Alberta has changed so much over the past two years. Being able to articulate the intended outcomes of a program and to clearly outline the process that will be used to measure the outcomes is more critical than ever to inform programming decisions. By taking this approach, service providers will be better positioned to focus their resources on sustainable and effective initiatives that have a demonstrable impact for people navigating the justice system in Alberta.
For more information on this topic, TechImpact recently hosted a three-part series titled Deep Dive on Data Collection: Surveys, Interviews and Focus Groups. These three sessions provide an excellent introduction to data collection as well as serve as a strong ‘back to the basics’ resource.