The current COVID-19 crisis has disrupted customer services in social security institutions worldwide. Institutions had to rapidly adapt their service delivery approaches to ensure the continuity of social security services while reducing personal interactions to a minimum. Furthermore, in the context of the crisis, institutions had to respond to an increased demand for short-term benefits as well as to implement a number of new social security measures.
The ISSA Webinar series on “Delivering social security in times of COVID-19”, involving ISSA member institutions from Argentina, Austria, France, Ireland, Morocco, Norway and Spain has highlighted how dynamic and rapid operational responses by social security institutions have ensured the continuity of customer services and the delivery of new benefits. Measures can be classified into the following main categories:
- Increased use of digital channels, including e-services, mobile services and shared data services;
- Pragmatic approaches to reach all population groups, in particular through call-centres to provide services to customers who cannot use digital channels;
- Flexibility and adaption regarding requirements for physical presence and paper-based documentation to submit applications and perform operations;
- Redeployment of staff to new functions and process adaptation in order to treat unprecedented quantities of operations.
The key role of digital channels
Digital channels are playing a crucial role for maintaining customer services during the period of COVID-19 restrictions, and their use has increased significantly. In this regard, institutions have been able to take advantage of already existing e-service portals providing personalized one-stop-shop functions, such as the your-social-security portal of the Spanish National Social Security Institute (INSS), the my-child portal of the French National Family Allowances Fund (CNAF), and the my-ANSES portal of the Argentinian National Social Security Administration (ANSES). The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), which is also relying mainly on digital channels, has further enhanced digital customer support through chatbots.
All institutions were also required to adapt existing systems to new regulations and social security measures as well as to secure their robustness in the context of a sudden increase in utilization. These adaptations, such as the implementation of new e-services to deliver emergency benefits, had to be implemented with very short delays. In Ireland, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) had to secure the digital provision of new benefits in a few days as well as enable a switch of 90 per cent of services to digital channels. The CNAF in France implemented services to deliver a new benefit on behalf of the government that goes beyond its usual mandate, a case that demonstrates the important capacity of social security institutions to deliver services in emergency contexts.
Shared data services, which consist of database systems shared by several organizations, have also played a key role to enable cross-institutional coordination. In particular, the INSS in Spain is taking advantage of an electronic registry of social security information while the Austrian Social Insurance is using a health electronic record system, which is the backbone of the national e-health infrastructure. The Austrian Social Insurance also performs data analysis on nation-wide administrative information to identify COVID-19 vulnerable and risk groups and to tailor and target communication.
More than ever, communication consisting of friendly explanations in simple language has been of key importance. Digital channels are therefore also used to support communication and information functions, mainly through institutional webpages. In addition, ANSES in Argentina has extended the use of social media to enhance their communication and customer support services.
Boosting phone-based service channels
For all institutions, reaching customers is a top priority. Although digital channels are increasingly popular among the population, some customer groups may have difficulties using them, in particular in the current confinement during which they lack access to family or community support.
Institutions have therefore reinforced phone-based channels through their call-centres by reassigning staff, supporting staff with institutional information systems and in some cases enabling them to perform operations on the customers’ behalf. Phone channels have become the key contact means for the DEASP in Ireland, and the call centre workload has tripled. Empowering call-centre staff, the CNAF in France put into practice a procedure enabling them to perform operations on behalf of customers.
Ensuring quality services in such an exceptional context is highly challenging. Staff skills and capacity play a key role especially when reassigned. To address this challenge, NAV is leveraging on existing online training tools in Norway. The CDG Insurance of Morocco has reinforced attention to quality in the current exceptional circumstances through special teams that ensure the comprehensive back-end to front-end service quality assurance for critical processes.
Relaxing conditions requiring physical contact
In order to streamline the use of digital and phone channels, some rules requiring in-person interactions had to be adapted. This notably related to customer identity validation and the provision of paper-based documents. In Spain, the INSS has issued legal statements to accept the identity declared by the customer as well as alternative documentary evidence if the normal one cannot be provided. In addition, legal deadlines that may harm customers have been waived, benefit payment periods been extended and provisional benefits been granted. The ANSES has implemented similar measures in Argentina, enabling the a-posteriori validation of documentation attached to applications.
Staying in contact with all customers, and especially the most vulnerable ones, is a fundamental obligation for all social security institutions. In the context of COVID-19 restrictions, the experience of ISSA member institutions has highlighted that the implementation of digital channels and the promotion of digital inclusion is not an option but an obligation for social security institutions.
Building on existing e-service portals, flexibility, exceptional staff commitment and high levels of expertise, social security institutions from around the world have demonstrated unparalleled capacities to support national emergency responses and contribute to mitigating the social and economic impact of the crisis.
Looking to the future, the current crisis is also an opportunity to accelerate the transformation of service delivery to digital channels, based on streamlined customer services and more flexible and automated processes. This will also support the preparedness for future crisis, for which agility to adapt, change and innovate have emerged as key capabilities. Through its Guidelines and the related knowledge and services, the ISSA will continue to strengthen its contribution to building these capacities around the world.