Focus groups give failing grades to Ottawa’s digital outreach to youth

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be Canada’s youth minister, but new research suggests his government has failed to connect with young people about education, jobs, skills and training.

A public-opinion report commissioned by the Liberal government has found young people use the internet almost exclusively to find career and other information — but most regard government websites as useless.

“Government sites are generally perceived to be difficult to navigate and challenging to find information,” says a copy of the March 31 report, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

Virtually no awareness

“Sites are … inclusive of too many layers, i.e., requiring excessive clicks, and often difficult to find what you are looking for. As a result, many opt not to visit a government website.”

“There is virtually no awareness of government youth programs or advertising … other than recruitment campaigns for DND (Department of National Defence) and the RCMP.”

We Day 20170702

A youth choir performs Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie’s song Secret Path at We Day on Parliament Hill. Canadian youth look for education, job and skills-training information almost exclusively online, says a new report, but know little about federal programs because the websites are ‘bland’ and ‘boring.’ (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The findings arise from 16 focus groups involving 109 individuals across Canada between the ages of 16 and 30. The research in March was commissioned by Employment and Social Development Canada for $54,000 from Halifax-based polling firm Corporate Research Associates.

Forty-five-year-old Trudeau, elected in 2015 as Canada’s second-youngest prime minister (after Joe Clark), took on the youth portfolio himself. He promised money and programs to help young Canadians get affordable education, summer jobs, skills training and reliable employment.

‘It would be very frustrating to try to find what you are looking for.’ — Focus-group participant

The record is mixed. A promised 40,000 jobs for youth in 2016 became just 9,000 that year, many of them part-time. At the same time, student grants and loan programs have been adjusted to give lower-income students a bigger break. Trudeau also created a youth council to advise him.

Employment and Social Development is revamping its youth-related websites and social-media campaigns. It ordered the focus-group research partly to find out what it is doing wrong.

Some of the comments were blunt.

“This is what I would expect from the government,” said one participant. “A site that is not organized well. It would be very frustrating to try to find what you are looking for, and after lots of digging you probably wouldn’t find it.”

Others called the websites “boring,” “bland” and “unattractive” and compared using them to falling down a “rabbit hole.”

The focus-group report also found strong resistance to the terms “millennials” and “Generation Y,” which appear in many federal websites. The terms were “considered derogatory and insulting,” implying young people are lazy and have no ambition.

“I’ve never heard it used as a compliment,” said one participant.

Roundly criticized

The groups were shown some proposed videos and other materials intended for YouTube and other social-media platforms. Again, reaction was often negative.

One video entitled “Life on Hold,” showing an indebted young couple stuck in a basement apartment, was roundly criticized for being depressing and hopeless and for its suggestion that “marriage is a primary goal of most youth today.”

Corporate Research Associates’ report recommended the department redesign its website for youth, avoid troublesome terms such as “millennials,” ditch the proposed videos as having “missed the mark,” and revamp proposed social-media posts and digital ads.

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Focus groups give failing grades to Ottawa’s digital outreach to youth

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