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Chaos descended on governments more than two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of frontline public-service workers and back-office bureaucrats to abandon their offices, stop meeting with clients and managing lineups, and switch quickly to improvised digital services in departments that in many cases had barely moved beyond the fax machine.

Unsurprisingly, some departments became frozen and dysfunctional, leaving a legacy of perpetual waiting lists, undelivered projects and unanswered calls. But an unexpected consequence of the global crisis was that some branches of government actually sharply improved their quality of service, in terms of both timeliness of delivery and effectiveness of results. The virus forced transformations, in many places, that should have happened decades ago.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way governments have changed how they deal with the process of immigration, settlement and the pathway to citizenship. If you’ve ever emigrated to new country, you know it involves years of day-long waits at government offices, repeat trips to bring in the proper documents, hard-to-arrange appointments with officials, forms that must be handled in person and often years of non-optional classes in language and citizenship. Even for a middle-class immigrant with resources, it’s a complex, disruptive process that can go on for years.

But the pandemic had a striking and often overwhelmingly positive effect on the Western world’s immigration bureaucracies. That’s made apparent in a new study, “The COVID-19 Catalyst,” by Jasmijn Slootjes of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, in which her team looked at the immigration bureaucracies of 14 countries, including Canada’s.

Pretty much every developed country faced twin problems during the pandemic. One, restricted travel and sometimes-closed borders made it very hard to bring in the people who were needed to keep the economy rolling, especially in suddenly crucial fields such as healthcare, eldercare and food production. And two, an already undersized bureaucracy was now working from home and unable to operate service desks, offices and classrooms.

Three important things happened, according to Ms. Slootjes.

First, the entire landing, settlement, integration and naturalization process was moved online. While this created some disadvantages – immigrants often value in-person meetings and the networking opportunities that come with them – these, the researchers were surprised to find, were usually far outweighed by the benefits, which allowed more people to be reached, far more quickly and effectively, across a wider geography and with less inconvenience.

This was particularly true for immigrant women and members of vulnerable refugee communities, who, for various reasons, previously had trouble making in-person meetings during business hours but now could be reached directly, in large numbers. Some countries did this immediately: Germany spent €40-million in 2020 developing online language-oriented integration classes.

Of course, some immigrants and especially refugee claimants have trouble finding internet connections and smart devices. But the speed with which this problem was solved surprised everyone. In the Netherlands, a major new program brought tech companies together with government to give devices to more than 12,000 people. Canada’s tech-donation schemes became far more active, and Ottawa launched a popular digital-literacy program for immigrants during the pandemic.

Second, national governments were forced to work with outside organizations and local governments, who actually have more front-line knowledge. (That’s the paradox of immigration: It’s a national policy area that manifests itself almost entirely at the municipal level.) “In Canada, Finland, Flanders and France, governments were forced to reach out to colleagues in other policy areas to address newly arising issues,” Ms. Slootjes writes.

Many countries decided to follow the decentralization lead of Canada, whose settlement and integration services are mostly delivered not by the federal public service but by 500 not-for-profit institutions and local-government offices whose employees and volunteers are able to work longer and more flexible hours, adapt more quickly and work in more trusted relationships with clients, at lower cost.

And third, the pandemic forced government agencies to rethink their primary missions – and sometimes, their entire purpose.

The concept of “integration,” which in Europe had often meant language and “values” education, was quickly redefined around its more important meaning: inclusion in the country’s economy, education and housing systems.

Immigration agencies, which had previously seen themselves as gatekeepers that slowly filtered in the more desirable and well-off people from lists of applicants, suddenly found “a renewed appreciation of low-skilled migrant workers in essential roles,” and often invested in chartered flights and instant naturalization invitations in order to fill the economy’s yawning gaps with such people.

Countries that undertook this rethink are, in this year of overheated recovery, typically having less difficulty with shortages and inflation than countries that stuck to their old ways. And, thanks to the wholesale reinvention of their immigration bureaucracy, they’ve been able to respond better – and with less hassle or controversy – to the millions of Ukrainian refugees they now face.

Few of them will publicly credit a deadly pandemic with making them better at their jobs. But they could.

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