Innovation through collaboration in social security: Experiences of ISSA members

Innovation through collaboration in social security: Experiences of ISSA members

Innovative capacity is a key enabler of a better social security. Building innovation friendly institutions and integrating innovation in organizational processes requires strategic vision, leadership and a commitment to promote creativity and collaboration across units and teams.

The World Social Security Forum (WSSF) held in Marrakech, Morocco, 24–28 October 2022 exhibited exceptional experiences in innovation in social security. A dedicated session on Collaborating and fostering innovation in social security highlighted building blocks for a strong innovative capacity in social security institutions and featured the presentation of the ISSA Collaborative Innovation Hub. This activity of the International Social Security Association (ISSA) promotes social security innovation through collaborative approaches at the international level. It aims to support member institutions develop innovation projects and  generate or strengthen their permanent innovation capacity.

This article will analyse the innovation experiences of three organizations presented at the WSSF: the Social Insurance Institution (Kela) from Finland, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), and the Central Provident Fund Board (CPF) under the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore. All three presented innovations involving internal and interinstitutional collaboration. ESDC also won the ISSA Good Practice Award in 2020 for its organizational innovation and transformation efforts.

Innovation approaches from Canada, Finland and Singapore

Canada: Agile teamwork, scaling up solutions and systems design thinking

The ESDC provides social development services, pensions, employment benefits and skills programmes to over 38 million people in Canada. The organization employs 45,000 staff across 10 provinces and five time zones. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic involved the use of new forms of internal organization to increase EDSC’s innovation capacity.

  • Agile benefit design. The Canada Training Grant exemplifies a methodology used to design new benefits in an agile way. This new benefit was decided in weeks instead of months. The decision involved the mobilization of a complex ecosystem of stakeholders. The traditional decision-making process had consisted of experts developing a business case insulated from other colleagues. Instead, a multidisciplinary, team decision-making process, akin to agile software development was used. Every week, senior leaders met several managers and experts from different units who understood the intended policy outcomes, the target audience, the operations, and services integrity issues. Over eight weeks, a proposal was prepared to the Canadian Ministry to be able deliver the benefit more accurately and more attuned to the ESDC’s capabilities.
  • Enhanced staff capabilities for innovation. According to ESDC, scaling innovation is a key challenge for service transformation. Part of the strategy for reaching scale with innovations, the organization sourced experts internally by freeing them from their daily operations and policy duties and formed the ISSA award winning good practice Service Transformation: Design-thinking and the Acceleration Hub. In addition, it retrained and retooled the staff with new skills such as change management and client experience management.
  • Design thinking was identified as a critical capability to overcome barriers in service delivery. As an example, when international flights resumed in summer of 2022, this led to an overflow of passport applications, resulting in a backlog in passport issuance. Through Service Canada, ESDC is responsible for the delivery of the passport programme on behalf of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. ESDC examined operational processes and bottlenecks in a single five-hour meeting with transport officers. It discovered that the abolishment of one low level clerk function was overburdening managers with extra work and increasing passport processing times. The backlog was resolved by freeing managers from these tasks and helping them refocus on higher priorities.

Finland: Customer centric online information and communication

Kela provides social insurance services for all those living in Finland through a knowledge, support and collaboration approach. Collaborative work is therefore at the core of Kela’s mission and means of delivery. The institution engages ecosystems comprising a variety of stakeholders to develop customer centric solutions. The development of customer centric information and communication services is a case in point: Customer service is available online, through phone and in presence through various locations. has one of the largest visitors counts among Finnish websites, recording more than 56 million visits in 2021. It totals over 8000 pages, and presently 80 per cent of benefit applications are sent online. The website offers dedicated information for individual customers, employers’ partner organizations and other stakeholders. The information displayed refers to laws and procedures.

Kela implemented a project aimed to simplify online information, forms and services. Prior to its implementation the information was found to be complicated and difficult to understand. The changes involved:

  • User friendly, simple and plain language. 5,000 webpages were reviewed. Before the change, many customer contacts were a result of words they did not understand. This represented a considerable burden for staff and generated inconvenience for customers.
  • Multi-disciplinary project teams. Instead of relying only on communication department or IT and web experts, the project involved different units within the organization and benefited from various forms of expertise, including language editors, legal counsellors, service designers (for changes in look and feel) and IT systems specialists.
  • User profiles analyses. To better understand the needs and expectations of customers, Kela studied different user profiles to understand how to build better information and services for different audiences.

This simplification project was one of the most far-reaching of its type in Finland’s public service.

Singapore: Organizational design and practices for innovation

Singapore’s Central Provident Fund aims to secure retirement through lifelong income, health care financing, and home financing. The social security organization achieves innovation through internal cooperation and with external stakeholders. This collaboration is achieved through the following principles and practices.

  • Delegating the authority to implement to staff. Instead of directing and instructing employees what to do, senior management articulates where the organization strives to go, and why, and then employees work out how to achieve the milestones.
  • “Solutions without borders” partnership approach to problem solving. The Reject appeals management protocol (RAMP) illustrates the use of a network of partners to solve customer problems (Wong, 2020). Mandatory savings for retirement represent a long-term commitment. Each month 4,000 appeals enter CPF to withdraw money from member accounts for immediate needs, for example for medical bills, children’s education or debt repayment purposes. Whilst CPF tries to address people’s queries compassionately within the withdrawal rules, in a quarter of cases, people do not have legal grounds to withdraw from their savings. CPF maintains a network of over 40 organizations to which it directs customers for financial and emotional support.  
  • Challenging traditional practices through bold experimentation. One application of bold experimentation is the design of a system to allow withdrawal of payments at cash machines for people who have no bank account. Over 40,000 people were still paid by cheque, which involves operational complexity and was not sustainable. Thanks to the collaboration with Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), Singaporeans are now able to receive payments through the GovCash system, allowing them to withdraw payments through self-service cash machines. This involved innovations in face recognition systems. This system will be spread to the payment of other government benefits.

Sustaining innovation at a large scale requires the right climate to innovate, given the existing institutional constraints. The following tools were put in place to enable collaboration led innovation whilst giving due consideration to processes, places and people.  

  • CPF’s Experimentation Fund de-risks innovation processes. It encourages staff to experiment without fear of failure impacting on their department’s current budgets. An example of experimentation supported through this fund is the automation of insurance claims with machine learning.
  • CPF’s in-house Automation and Play Labs. The Automation Lab helps train staff to eliminate, improve or automate manual tasks that they face (Nolan, 2021). In addition, CPF converted a physical space for knowledge sharing called Play Lab, a space for open experimentation. It holds demonstrations by innovative private sector companies and implements hackathons.
  • Leadership engagement with innovation efforts. For the CPF, innovation requires the initiative and sustained commitment by senior leaders. Senior leadership also benefit from the organizations’ support for on-the job training.
Table 1. Summary of innovations through collaboration
Institution Description Impact
ESDC, Canada Policy innovation (Canada Training Grant) through agile work methods. Submitted and successfully adopted by the EDSC Board in less than 8 weeks.
Scaled innovation through building up staff capabilities for innovation by recruiting internal staff, training and reskilling them. More focused and capable innovation approaches across the organization.
Design thinking method applied to problem solving. More efficient and rapid handling of passport issuance.
Kela, Finland User friendly website with simple and plain language. 5,000 out of 8,000 webpages reviewed. Reduction of time wasted in responding to customer queries and less inconvenience for customers.
Use of multi-disciplinary teams, instead of only web experts. only, for look and feel aspects, language, legal compliance, and coding. The project involved different units within the organization and benefited from various forms of expertise, including language editors, legal counsellors, service designers and IT specialists.
User profiling to better understand the needs and expectations of customers. More adapted language, touch and feel, content and flow of the web information.
CPF, Singapore Delegation of authority to implementing staff. Staff are encouraged to take the initiative and shoulder risk.
“Solutions without borders” partnership approach to problem solving. The Reject appeals management protocol (RAMP) uses of a network of partners to solve customer problems. To help 17,000 people resolve problems withdrawals for urgent needs, CPF uses a network of over 40 organizations to help provide financial and emotional support to costumers.
Challenging traditional practices through bold experimentation. One application is the design of a system to allow withdrawal of payments at cash machines for people who are unbanked. Over 40,000 people are able to receive payments through the GovCash system, allowing them to withdraw directly money from cash machines.
Experimentation Fund removes the risks from innovation processes. It encourages staff to experiment without fear of failure impacting on their department current budgets.
In house Automation and Play Labs for open experimentation. Practical innovations resulted from automation labs and play labs.
Leadership sustained engagement with innovation. Leadership set up innovation components and tools for innovation and through their sustained and educated engagement participated in organizational culture change.

Critical factors of success for collaborative innovation

The experiences from Canada, Finland and Singapore demonstrate that collaboration is at the heart of new forms of innovation. The innovations above can be clustered around five major themes related to building capabilities for collaborative innovation in social security organizations:

  • Agile team-work methods, staff capabilities (attitudes, skills and tools) and problem-solving techniques;
  • Customer centricity, user profiling and multi-disciplinary work routines;
  • Organizational design and practices (delegating authority and allowing bold experimentation, partnership building);
  • Innovation system components concerning processes, places and people as enablers (experimentation fund, places and special moments for demonstrating and experimenting innovation);
  • Sustained leadership engagement by example and through continuous learning.

Opportunities for international collaboration

The objective of the ISSA Collaborative Innovation Hub is to develop an environment for international collaboration on innovation for ISSA members. The focus is both on supporting capabilities for innovation and on developing practical solutions. The former includes changes in human resources for innovation. The latter may relate to the application of digital technologies, for example in data exchange. The supporting frameworks for innovation and the necessity for improved governance architecture that aligns organizational coordination with agile management (Ross, Beath and Mocker, 2019), also have their place in the innovation hub. Finally, several innovation cases demonstrate that leadership is essential and needs to be developed and strengthened. Other themes may be proposed by members.  The following were some of the suggestions of ISSA members at the WSSF in Marrakech for activities of the collaborative innovation hub.

According to ESDC, the collaboration innovation hub could help members conduct and accelerate experimentation by drawing on different resources for advice. Accordingly, the collaborative innovation hub can help members:


Source: Author based on ESDC intervention at the WSSF Morocco, Oct 2022

Similarly, despite being a frontrunner on innovation and digitalization, Finland’s Kela emphasized the importance of learning from abroad and experimenting locally. Singapore’s CPF has also benefited from international collaboration throughout its transformation processes. Learning from the existing and alternative cases of rapidly emerging technologies and processes accelerates learning, as organizations build from successes and pitfalls. However, the CPF stressed the importance of cultural and contextual differences when considering the transfer of policies, technologies, or processes. It is necessary to adapt solutions to the different countries. Furthermore, innovation takes place in the context of localized ecosystems, therefore it is important not to consider organizations in isolation, but also the contexts in which they strive and the connections and partnerships that are established by social security organizations with other innovation stakeholders.


Contrary to traditional in-house research and development activities, innovation involves increasingly internal and external collaborative processes, led by multidisciplinary teams. Some social security organizations already exhibit exceptional innovation capabilities based on collaboration. One core element is the personal skills of leadership, middle management, and staff. Another driver of innovation is the capacity to learn and experiment as a team. Collaborative innovation thus requires a significant shift from traditional ways of managing social security policy and delivery, as well as deep changes in leadership profiles, working methods, mindsets, and skills. International collaboration can help foster capabilities for collaborative innovation. The ISSA Collaborative Innovation Hub will also offer a platform for practical collaboration between member organizations.


Nolan, S. 2021. “How Singapore simplified pensions and financial planning”, in GovInsider, 30 November.

Ross, J. W.; Beath, C. M.; Mocker, M. 2019. Designed for digital: How to architect your business for sustained success. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Wong, S. M. 2020. “If there's any pain, we feel it first”, in Challenge, 8 December.