Building a social security workforce for the digital era: Experiences from Europe

Building a social security workforce for the digital era: Experiences from Europe

While social security administrations have gradually pursued digital strategies over the past decades, the COVID-19 crisis accelerated their digital transformation journey. The resilience and scalability of digital systems in responding to unprecedented needs despite operational constraints has dramatically moved the needle on organizations going “digital by default”. This article builds on the experiences of social security institutions in Europe.

By “digital by default”, one means “digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use digital services will choose to do so, while those who cannot are not excluded”. (GOV.UK 2012). Two forces are driving this rapid digital transition of social security, namely, technologies and human resources (HR) (Ortiz 2022a). Digital transformation is as much a process of human change as a technological one. While technologies enable organizations to extend possibilities in terms of service design, operations and processes, they do so in tandem with human resources. Effectively managing the institution’s human capital – hiring, compensating, retaining, training, mentoring and developing – will be key to pursuing this ambitious agenda successfully. As the ISSA Guidelines on Good Governance rightly note, “People – and the talent, experience and capacities that they have – are key to an organization’s performance, resilience and dynamism”.

The digital journey impacts human resources and the human resource management (HRM) function in social security institutions in two ways:

  • Impact on the HRM function: While the core functions of HRM (see Figure 1) are basically the same in the digital world, technologies can vastly improve the implementation of these functions. Technology‑driven reforms of HRM will become crucial for successful recruitment, training, retention, and overall employee satisfaction and productivity.
  • Impact on staff skills, competencies and capacity: Rather than replace human capacity, technologies alter and diversify the range of skillsets required (Gujral 2016). For instance, automation of routine tasks frees up caseworkers to focus on demanding cases, which in turn requires stronger interpersonal skills. Creating seamless digital self-service windows requires user research and product design expertise. Greater demand for data-driven analytics cannot be met without competent data science professionals. However, currently these skills are in deficit: For example, 63 per cent of the 250 government agencies surveyed across seven European countries reported that lack of skills and experience was a barrier for cloud transformation (AWS Public Sector Blog, 2021). Building these new skillsets will take time and require agility and adaptability from the existing workforce. The HR function needs to be able to anticipate and plan for evolving skills needs, and at the same time upskill the existing workforce wherever optimal.

Figure 1. Components of HRM

Figure 1: Components of HRM

Source: Armstrong & Taylor (2020).

Experiences in HR transformation from Europe

Cognizant that HR and technology are two sides of the same coin, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) has been convening members and developing resources to guide the human-digital journey. The guidelines on human capital policies under the ISSA Guidelines on Good Governance outline key strategies for recruitment, retention, and development. The new ISSA Guidelines on Human Resource Management in Social Security Administration (ISSA, 2022) further emphasize the need for strategic alignment of human and technology resources with more comprehensive guidance. The complementarities between technologies and HR, particularly in more advanced European countries, have also been discussed in various webinars, roundtables, and publications. This article aims to stimulate thinking around this topic in Europe by summarizing member institutions’ emerging experiences across a subset of components that make up HRM (Figure 1): (i) broader HRM transformation, (ii) learning and development, and (iii) employee well‑being during change.

Rebooting the HRM function

Social Insurance Institution, Poland

The Social Insurance Institution in Poland (Zaklad Ubezpieczen Spolecznych – ZUS) transformed its HRM function by restructuring its erstwhile Department of Employee Affairs into the Department of Human Resources Management (HRD) to ensure that HRM practices are aligned with its ambitious organizational strategy (ZUS, 2019). Under this new structure, dedicated HR Business Partners were appointed at national and regional levels. A new HR Controlling and Remuneration Policy Division was set up for managing the wage fund, assessing job positions, and determining the optimal number of employees in ZUS. An employee value proposition was created – on the basis of interviews, surveys and workshops – to enable ZUS to attract talent. Recruitment standards were developed for all ZUS units to increase transparency and effectiveness of recruitment activities. A software application was adopted for time and leave management. The transformation process emphasized inclusion, ethics and safety: The ZUS systematically pursued the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the ZUS’ workforce. Further, it created a commission for resolving issues of harassment and discrimination.

Learning and development

Social Insurance Institution, Poland

A key component of the broader transformation at the ZUS that is worth highlighting is the new unified training and evaluation system (ZUS, 2020) This system was designed to effectively build and reward the capacity of the agency’s 40,000 employees. First, the ZUS developed a competency model after a comprehensive review of existing job roles. In the absence of a competency model, learning and development, and performance management had been ad-hoc and incomplete. The new competency model identified 17 competencies across three areas – general, managerial and specialist – and further defined expected behaviours under each competency. An online learning solution – mapped to the competency model – was introduced. The open-source online learning platform was used to create a seamless remote learning environment, which complemented physical trainings typically done prior to the pandemic. Further, a Periodic Employee Evaluation System was introduced for assessing defined employee competencies. This annual evaluation system comprised of employee self-assessments, employee evaluation by superiors, and debriefing interviews.

State Social Insurance Fund Board, Lithuania

The State Social Insurance Fund Board of Lithuania (Sodra) grappled with software quality issues due to limited digital literacy among staff. Without sufficient digital skills, software adoption proved counterproductive, resulting in higher levels of manual workload, error rate, and stakeholder dissatisfaction. Rather than hire IT professionals and then train them in Sodra’s business activities, Sodra focused on equipping existing social insurance professionals with the necessary IT knowledge (Sodra, 2020). Sodra focused on business users and not IT professionals as: (i) the required IT skills were not sophisticated (e.g. Structured Query Language, basics of Oracle Forms and Reports, familiarity with Java), and (ii) it was more important that staff have a good understanding of business processes and how users work with the information system. Termed as superusers, these professionals split their time between routine business functions and information systems development. Under this initiative, 40 superusers were trained, 10 for each of Sodra’s main areas of activity, namely, manage the register, enforce contribution payments, pay pensions, and pay other benefits.

Superusers enhanced the value of Sodra’s IT investments in several ways. First, superusers analysed and evaluated new software for relevance, user-friendliness and existing functionality. Second, they leveraged their extensive knowledge of social insurance processes to adequately test the software, taking into account edge cases, i.e. outlier scenarios, that the IT professionals are less likely to identify. Finally, they guided colleagues in local offices on the implementation of the software, which reduced the time spent by specialized IT professionals on routine queries as well as contributed to consistent implementation across units.

National Employment Office, Belgium

The National Employment Office (Office national de l’emploi – ONEM) of Belgium accelerated the digital transformation of the recruitment and training process to ensure adequate surge staffing for delivering services at greater scale amid pandemic constraints. A remote, entirely digital recruitment and training strategy was designed to hire and train a large number of staff in a short space of time in order for the institution to be able to pay out benefits to more than 1.7 million insured people affected by the crisis (ONEM, 2020). ONEM quickly assessed and set up a remote recruitment process, training 20 members and conducting 1,117 remote interviews. It revised its training curriculum to prioritize critical services, and created an online train-the-trainer course for 96 trainers, emphasizing interactive learning methods necessary to liven up the remote learning environment. Thanks to the additional budget approved by the government, the ONEM recruited and trained 317 new agents through this strategy. In total, 1,840 working days of online induction training, and 3,246 working days of training on core business processes and technical skills relating to unemployment benefits were provided.

Employee well-being during change

National Employment Office, Belgium

With 92 per cent of the existing employees teleworking full-time during the pandemic, ONEM was confronted with new challenges to promoting employee well-being. Alongside ensuring adequate staffing, ONEM launched a number of employee well-being initiatives in March 2020 to support employees cope with the new world of teleworking (ONEM, 2020). A single point of contact was established to respond to all coronavirus‑related organizational questions. A set of frequently asked questions comprising all coronavirus‑related information was created. Remote team-building activities were arranged. Employees were supported with the home-office set-up. Finally, psychosocial risk assessments were carried out in all ONEM offices and departments between October 2020 and October 2021.

National Family Allowances Fund, France

In France, the National Family Allowances Fund (Caisse nationale des allocations familiales – CNAF), which manages the entire network of 101 Family Allowances Funds (Caisses d’allocations familiales – CAF), introduced a series of measures to support employees cope with the impacts of the pandemic (CNAF, 2020). This comprised of counselling, support in the form of webinars and motivational articles, and surveys to regularly assess employees’ psychological well-being. The strategies were informed by the ISSA Guidelines on Workplace Health Promotion and the ISSA Guidelines on Prevention of Occupational Risks.

In the initial days of the crisis, the CNAF disseminated a guide on good teleworking and organized videoconferences for managers to help them better support their teleworking teams. Cognizant of the potential adverse impacts of full-time teleworking, CNAF significantly bolstered institutional arrangements from April 2020 by creating a permanent support unit on the quality of life during teleworking. This unit offered each employee a time slot during which they could discuss their feelings, any difficulties encountered and potential solutions to help them cope with the situation. To inform its strategy, the unit conducted an employee survey with 37 questions on the quality of life, which provided useful information towards designing new ways of working. The unit also emphasized specialized support to new recruits to deal with challenges arising from atypical remote onboarding arrangements. For instance, for a fortnight in June 2021, 80 new recruits had an hour-long interactive meeting each morning with a director of the CNAF Executive Committee, which helped create stronger sense of organizational belonging.

German Federal Pension Insurance

The German Federal Pension Insurance (Deutsche Rentenversicherung Bund – DRV Bund) sought to proactively manage the impacts of the change brought on by the digitization of case management records (DRV Bund, 2020). The DRV Bund set up a system called “pulse checks” to identify caseworkers’ fears and concerns as they transitioned towards the digital document workflow.

The ISSA Guidelines on Information and Communication Technology informed the design of the pulse checks, which essentially comprised self-administered quantitative surveys and hour-long workshops. The results of pulse checks were swiftly analysed and support measures were developed where needed. The reports were shared organization-wide to build trust and transparency in the process. By actively giving a voice to employees and making them feel valued, the pulse checks contributed towards the success of the digital transition.


Table 1 summarizes the results these institutions have been able to achieve through their HRM innovations.

Institution Results obtained
ZUS – Poland
  • Improved management of human resources
  • Availability of comprehensive management information on the human resources potential
  • Equalized access to training through on-demand virtual content
  • Reduced travel costs and time associated with training
  • 18% increase in the share of the persons with disabilities employed at the ZUS
SODRA – Lithuania
  • Optimized use of existing software
  • Reduced redundant software, and thereby saved time and money
  • Reduced the number of delayed requests by half
ONEM – Belgium
  • 95% of new employees said that their role aligned with the job advertisement
  • 95% of new employees felt that their jobs met their expectations
  • The retention rate for new staff rose from 84% in 2019 to 91% in 2020
  • The satisfaction with training increased from 84% in 2019 to 97% in 2020
  • Unemployed files processed increased by 68% from 2019 to 2020
  • Call centre queries handled increased by 38% from 2019 to 2020
CNAF – France
  • 84% of the surveyed employees said they had not felt isolated
  • 89% of the surveyed employees felt that communication from the institution was sufficient
DRV Bund Germany
  • • Gradual improvement of employee-satisfaction with the digital transition

Critical success factors

Incorporating employee voice is key to the success of HR transformation initiatives. Employees are more willing to accept changes to how they are managed when their inputs into the process are valued. For instance, in Lithuania Sodra sought input from a range of employees about ihrmts superuser programme, emphasizing project benefits, decision process, expected results and timelines. In France and Germany, CNAF and DRV Bund both created bilateral mechanisms to ensure that employees were in step with the HRM changes.

HRM changes necessarily affect existing employee dynamics and therefore, need to be carefully navigated. For instance, in Lithuania, non-superusers could have resented superusers as the latter suddenly gained better career prospects. Business departments that superusers belonged to had to coordinate better with IT departments for workflow planning for the first time, and vice-versa, which could have led to frictions of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Understanding and responding to these evolving dynamics was crucial. Similarly, in Germany, the content of the pulse checks and the process through which they were rolled-out needed meticulous planning to ensure that some negative feedback didn’t jeopardize the overall initiative.  

Successful experiences were preceded by pilots which helped institutions anticipate and prepare for potential risks. For example, the ZUS in Poland could not assume that online training would function seamlessly to meet the needs of all of its 40,000 employees. To ensure the proper functioning of the open-source learning platform, it was first piloted. The pilot was also aimed to configure the platform, i.e. prepare the authentication system, initiate the training courses system, implement a system of accounts, allocate rights, design a graphic template, insert specialist vocabulary, prepare for automatic archiving and reporting, etc. In Germany, DRV Bund pre-tested the content of the pulse checks before roll-out.

It is important to emphasize that like all change, HRM changes have to be gradual. The specific changes to recruitment and training in Belgium were possible only because ONEM had the culture of teleworking – alongside the necessary infrastructure – since 2014. Further, a professional team of experts in learning and skills development have been in place since 1982, providing the insights essential for designing and navigating transformative change. Similarly, CNAF in France had initiated teleworking on a small scale in 2014, so the seeds of change were already sown when COVID-19 hit, making the transition less drastic and therefore more feasible.

Final remarks

In 2021, 88 per cent of public service leaders said that their organization's business and technology strategies were becoming inseparable (Accenture, 2021). This synergetic relationship also applies to technology and HR, which means that any advances in technology cannot be fully realized unless there are corresponding HR reforms. As social security leaders from ISSA member institutions noted in a CEO Roundtable, in this human-and-digital journey, one without the other simply does not work. At the same time, several broader socio-economic trends are reshaping how HR is managed (Ortiz, 2022a). The greater demand for flexible work arrangements, rise in extended workers, changing aspirations, growing privacy risks, among other factors mean that business as usual is no longer possible. Further, in OECD countries in particular, impacts of population ageing on public service employment require strategic HR planning and adapting to the evolving workforce expectations to ensure seamless succession (McKinnon, 2010). Some member institutions working innovatively to address this challenge while others are still grappling with it; for instance, the Union of National Social Security Funds (Union des caisses nationales de sécurité sociale – UNCASS) (UNCASS, 2022) in France re-branded its employer value proposition and expanded its recruitment channels to attract the new generation of workers.

The transformation of the HRM function is indispensable for institutions to deliver quality social security services at a time of constant technological and social change. The changing nature of the work, the workplace, and the ways of working requires a reboot of HRM to ensure that the workforce – and the institution – continue to flourish and thrive in the changing environment. This implies taking advantage of digital technologies to rethink how the range of functions embedded within HRM are implemented. For instance, artificial intelligence-based recruitment processes are being explored by member institutions (UNCASS, 2022). At the same time, social security institutions will need to strategically plan their HR needs, identifying where upskilling is the answer, and where new talent or outsourcing partners need to be brought in. Ultimately, “an institution’s digital maturity is defined not by the sophistication of its technologies alone but jointly with a workforce that capably applies technologies to augment human skills and amplify institutional capacities” (Ortiz, 2022b).


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