This article looks at the digital transformation strategies of social security institutions with the aim to provide better and more efficient services for clients and beneficiaries. It builds on good practices submitted by members of the International Social Security Association (ISSA) from the Asia and the Pacific region.
Social security institutions worldwide are facing a paradigm shift in how they operate. Increasing economic volatility and accelerating demographic change have led to an exponential growth in demands on social security systems. The pressure to transition from “a transactional model based on reactive claims processing to an approach that is more proactive” to meet clients’ growing needs in a customized manner has never been greater (Gujral, 2016). At the same time, institutions have to walk the tightrope of budget restrictions, while optimising outcomes for clients. Furthermore, technological change has led to clients making new demands of institutions in terms of range of services, responsiveness, personalisation, and so on. Social security institutions are increasingly looking to digital transformation to operate effectively in this complex ever-changing landscape.
While information and communication technology (ICT) has played a role in public administration for some decades, early efforts were limited to putting processes and services online, reducing reliance on paper and in-person procedures (OECD, 2021). Although this approach streamlined individual processes, it was centred on governments’ needs, resulting in fragmented client experiences. In recent years, government institutions, including social security institutions, are rethinking how ICT can be combined with human capital to create truly transformational impact on clients. Figure 1 encapsulates the core tenets that distinguish the ongoing phase of digital transformation from previous generations of the use of ICT in institutions.
What does this mean in practice? Institutions are no longer just digitizing front-end interfaces; they are re-engineering business processes to create digitally-enabled workflows that are more responsive to clients’ needs. They are also providing joined-up services, integrating with institutions and data beyond their own agencies’ walls. A growing number of agencies are leveraging emerging technologies such as big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve operational performance, control fraud and error, and provide customised services (ISSA, 2019a). As operating models of social security institutions are driven more and more by data and technology, organizational practices and staff capacity will need to be adapted accordingly to realise the full potential of ICT.
Figure 1. Core tenets of digital transformation in the public sector
Source: OECD (2020)
The ISSA has been supporting its member institutions on their digital transformation journey. In particular, the ISSA Guidelines on Information and Communication Technology (ISSA, 2019b), on Good Governance (ISSA, 2019c), and on Service Quality (ISSA, 2019d), have been used by many member institutions to anchor their transformation efforts. Recent webinars have showcased how countries in Africa have extended coverage through digital transformation and the digital transformation strategies of several European members. The ISSA is also supporting the digital transformation of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in China through a specifically tailored study that will be concluded in late 2022. In continuing to facilitate mutual learning, this article synthesises good practices from Asia and the Pacific that were submitted to the ISSA Good Practice Award competition 2021 and presented during the Virtual Social Security Forum for Asia and the Pacific and in webinars, and other ISSA activities. They are also available in the ISSA Database of Good Practices.
Experiences of ISSA member institutions in Asia and the Pacific
Abu Dhabi Pension Fund, United Arab Emirates
Through digital transformation, the Abu Dhabi Pension Fund (ADPF) or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sought to remove operational inefficiencies to enhance timeliness, user experience, and ease of providing documentation for its 91,639 active members (Abu Dhabi Pension Fund, 2021). Digital transformation involved shifting to new ways of working, including: (i) creation of joint initiatives with other agencies to better serve the clients, (ii) set up of government-to-government data exchange to reduce administrative burden, (iii) diversification of service delivery channels (e.g. mobile, website), (iv) automation of business processes through emerging technologies, and (v) staff capacity building for effective change management. The strategy setting process was closely informed by Guideline 3 on “ICT strategy and innovation perspective” of the of the ISSA Guidelines on ICT. The transformation process was accompanied by changes in the governance structure of the institution, a transition that was aided by a comprehensive governance assessment. The ADPF also ensured that it complied with international standards such as ISO20001 and ISO27001 in its digital transformation journey.
The uptake in data demonstrates the effectiveness of the digitalization strategies pursued by the ADPF. For instance, 94 per cent of the nearly 81,000 transactions were completed digitally in 2020. There is growing channel diversification, as evidenced by the nearly 60 per cent of the clients who had downloaded the mobile application by January 2021.
Public Pension Agency (now General Organization of Social Insurance), Saudi Arabia
The dual pressures of COVID-19 and increased client demand for efficient services put digital transformation on a fast-track at the Public Pension Agency (PPA), Saudi Arabia, that is now part of General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI) (Public Pension Agency, 2019). Some of the major reform initiatives included:
- Expansion of e-services, which led to doubling of visitors to the site between 2019 and 2020. Financial data and a pension calculator were some of the new initiatives introduced.
- Streamlining the mobile experience, leading to 130% increase in downloads by clients between 2019 and 2020. The downloads have also translated into increased uptake; for instance, salary verification requests via mobile phones increased three-fold during the same duration.
- Creation of secure data integration between various PPA systems and external systems to enable a paperless working environment.
- Leveraging data analytics enabled by data exchange to better control error and fraud via the artificial intelligence-based “Motabaqat”.
- Creating the internal infrastructure to support teleworking and better virtual communication.
Social Security Corporation, Jordan
With a large and rapidly growing user base of 1.4 million, the Social Security Corporation (SSC) sought to deliver quality services at scale via digital transformation. Through digitalization, the SSC planned to overcome challenges of delayed service delivery, high administrative burden and limited scalability associated with physical branches. The transformation plan included 26 initiatives in the areas of infrastructure development, investment in human resources, meeting the requirements of service recipients, and developing partnerships with relevant parties to provide end-to-end services by electronic means. To implement the plan, the SSC entered into strategic partnerships with government sector partners, such as the Central Bank of Jordan and private sector partners such as a licensed e-payment company and a website design company , with the aim of facilitating the reliable, inclusive and secure delivery of electronic services to all categories of service recipients. In 2020, the number of e-service users stood at 1.5 million, a 100-fold increase since 2018. The number of e-services grew dramatically from 36 in 2018 to 81 in 2021 (Social Security Corporation, 2020).
Iranian Social Security Organization, Islamic Republic of Iran
The COVID-19 crisis created an urgent impetus for the Iranian Social Security Organization (ISSO) to transition towards digital service delivery models. At the start of the pandemic, the agency served its 45 million clients – equivalent to nearly half the population of the country – primarily through its 558 physical branches. Termed Project 3070, the digital transformation project aimed to convert 30 of the agency’s services into digital services to avoid disruptions during COVID-19 and diversify service channels in the long-term. The services broadly included registration for various allowances, payments to claimants, notifications and issuance of certificates. The project aimed to cost-effectively scale-up services while ensuring quality delivery (Iranian Social Security Organization, 2020).
Between late 2020 and early 2021, 22 of the 30 services delivered at least 90 per cent of their respective transactions digitally. A more detailed evaluation of the online marriage grant payment demonstrates the gains made through digitalization. While the traditional paper-based service took clients five hours to submit eight documents, and administrators one hour to process, e-services reduced the time taken by clients and administrators to two hours and half an hour respectively. This process transformation was enabled by data exchange and automated eligibility checks, had zero-time costs for both clients and administrators.
Social Security System, Philippines
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 accelerated digital transformation initiatives within the Social Security System (SSS) in the Philippines. The SSS sought to expand the number of service channels and to improve the responsiveness of service delivery via digitalization (Social Security System, 2020). During the pandemic, the SSS focused on digitalizing a few core processes: registration, contribution payments, loan disbursal and benefit claims. The digitalization process was informed by Guideline 6 on “implementing e-services” of the ISSA Guidelines on ICT. An Information Systems Strategic Plan guided the significant new investments made into information technology (IT) systems, as a result of which seven new IT systems were implemented in 2020. The service quality improvements are shown by the dramatic shift from 35 per cent online transactions in 2019 to 75 per cent in 2020.
Table 1 summarises the key outcomes achieved by member institutions, thanks to digital transformation.
|ISSO, Iran||More than 30 million in-person visits were reduced during 4 months.|
|PPA/GOSI, Saudi Arabia||
|SSC, Jordan||The agency recorded significant improvements in the following metrics between 2018 and 2020:
|SSS, the Philippines||
Critical success factors
The experience of member institutions highlights several factors key to the success of digital transformation of social security institutions.
Clear strategy backed by strong leadership emerged as a crucial factor across institutions. A coherent long-term strategy is an essential anchor for operational changes, and to be truly useful, it requires strong leadership commitment to the strategy. For instance, in Abu Dhabi, the ADPF’s Digital Transformation Strategy accompanied by goal-specific strategic roadmaps were instrumental to the realization of digital transformation objectives. Similarly, the Strategic Digital Transformation plan for the years 2018–2022 closely guided the digital transformation processes at the SSC in Jordan. The SSO in Iran also developed a shared vision of the institution’s digital future and universal digital standards for services before embarking on digitalization. The ISSA analysis on Evolving management practices – Asia and the Pacific discusses this topic further.
The need to back the strategy with a suitable and flexible governance structure. Several risks can threaten an institution’s digital transformation goals, and an effective governance structure is key to anticipating them and taking mitigatory measures. For instance, employees’ resistance to technology was a major risk that the PPA in Saudi Arabia faced, and this was managed through the transformation process. The SSC in Jordan added a new Electronic Transformation Directorate to the organizational structure of SSC in 2018 to lead and manage the change process effectively.
Digital technologies across a range of processes, data integration and analytics-enabling automation have been key to exponential impacts. In Abu Dhabi, the ADPF’s 26 integrations with local and federal entities in the country were instrumental to achieving the goals of digital transformation, as data exchange was a key enabler for automated, documentation-free processing of applications. The PPA’s integration platform in Saudi Arabia was instrumental in creating a seamless client experience by exchanging data with 32 governmental agencies and partners, resulting in 183,973,490 data transactions. In a similar vein, the SSO in the Islamic Republic of Iran reaped maximum process efficiencies from data exchange with other institutions.
A robust continuous monitoring and evaluation system is the backbone of successful digital transformation. Clear and measurable metrics allow institutions to monitor the uptake of services, and take remedial action as needed. Measures to explicitly track the uptake of services among vulnerable groups (e.g., by age, by disability, by gender) are vital (Barca et al., 2021). User-friendly dashboards that produced meaningful and actionable statistics were crucial to addressing exclusionary impacts of digitalization by the SSO in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The SSC in Jordan created a weighted index to measure the objectives of electronic transformation, tracking its progress from 40 per cent in 2018 to 86 per cent in 2020.
Extensive awareness raising – among clients and service providers – is to key to the uptake of digitally transformed services by clients. The SSC in Jordan intensified efforts to advertise the new channels and improve awareness of its staff to accelerate the shift towards digital services. Similarly, the SSO in Iran released targeted campaigns across media formats to generate demand for digital services.
Targeted measures are needed to ensure that digital models do not become a further barrier to inclusion. Uneven availability of digital infrastructure (e.g., internet, phone connectivity) and lack of digital skills were flagged as key risks to effective digital transformation across institutions. For instance, the SSS in the Philippines was aware of the fact that internet penetration and bank account ownership among Filipinos was inadequate at 67 per cent and 23 per cent respectively, necessitating close monitoring of exclusionary impacts. In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, digital inclusion was among the explicitly stated objectives of the digital transformation project. For instance, the ISSO provided training to relevant vulnerable groups and equipped them with free SIM cards to be able to connect with digital services. The SSC in Jordan introduced a unified call center to support clients transfer from physical to digital branches, reaching nearly 1.2 million transactions at digital branches in 2020 – an increase of 150 per cent compared to 2018.
In summary, when anchored in a strong strategy and leadership commitment, digital transformation can enable agencies to exponentially expand their institutional capacity. The strategic perspective is critical, regardless of the outcomes pursued through digital transformation, whether it involves enhancing customer services or developing new ones; improving efficiency of business processes and supporting re-engineering; consolidating information systems; and so on. Furthermore, taking an agile, modular perspective to the transformation process is the key to efficiently manage the risks posed by the fast-changing world of technology as well as client needs. A digital governance framework is equally indispensable to ensure that agencies can effectively manage technologies rather than being managed by them. Beyond their application in the transformation programmes, such frameworks are crucial to permanently govern institutions’ digitalization, notably on the organizational and human factors (Ruggia-Frick, 2021). The path to digital transformation is challenging, but it can enable institutions to build the required capacity to deliver value, i.e., a strong social impact given the available resources. These issues have also been discussed for example in the 16th ISSA International Conference on Information and Communication Technology in Social Security and webinars on digital transformation in East Africa and in Europe, contributing to continued knowledge creation and sharing among ISSA members on this important topic for social security institutions.
Abu Dhabi Pension Fund. 2021. Digital transformation: How Abu Dhabi Pension Fund is leading digital transformation by being pensioner-centric (Good practices in social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
Barca, V. et al. 2021. Inclusive information systems for social protection: Intentionally integrating gender and disability. London, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.
Gujral, G. 2016. “Reshaping the social security agency around improved human capital and technology”, in International Social Security Review, Vol. 69, No. 3-4.
Iranian Social Security Organization. 2020. Project 3070: Iranian Social Security Organization digital transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic (Good practices in social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
ISSA. 2019a. Applying emerging technologies in social security (Summary report 2017-2019). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
ISSA. 2019b. ISSA Guidelines on information and communication technology (Revised and extended edition). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
ISSA. 2019c. ISSA Guidelines on good governance (Revised and extended edition). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
ISSA. 2019d. ISSA Guidelines on service quality (Revised and extended edition). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
OECD. 2020. The OECD digital government policy framework. Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
OECD. 2021. Development co-operation report 2021: Shaping a just digital transformation. Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Public Pension Agency. 2019. Digital transformation journey in the Public Pension Agency (Good practices in social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
Ruggia-Frick, R. 2021. Digital transformation – introduction (Webinar, 18 November). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
Social Security Corporation. 2018. Electronic transformation in the Social Security Corporation: Responding to the need of service recipients (Good practices in social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
Social Security Corporation. 2020. Establishing a digital branch - A new mechanism to face challenges (Good practices in social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.
Social Security System. 2020. Accelerating the transformative digitalisation (Good practices in social security). Geneva, International Social Security Association.