Social security institutions are an important face of government, particularly when disasters strike. As the turmoil and the global loss of lives and livelihoods caused by the coronavirus continue to rise, social security administrators are standing ground and keeping the promise: to deliver benefits and services in good times and in bad.
Current times can probably not get any more complex for social security administrators: the sudden and sustained influx of massive volumes of work, the sheer urgency of citizen needs, tight turnaround times, office lockdowns and teleworking. In some countries, governments add to the strain as the infrastructure and resources of social security institutions are being used to distribute additional fiscal subsidies and benefits.
Amidst all this, social security administrators are rising to the challenge, with remarkable agility, speed and resilience.
In the ISSA Webinar series on “Delivering social security in times of COVID-19”, a number of webinars focussing on adapting internal processes and human resources reveal how ISSA member organizations in Belgium, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, Estonia and Malaysia have managed to ramp up operations in the wake of the massive, sustained rise in public demand for benefits and services. Social security institutions from Japan, the Republic of Korea and Spain have also shared their experiences.
Going forward, among the strategies that have proven pivotal are:
- Agile and decisive leadership
- Real-time collection and sharing of data and information
- Dependable digital connectivity
- Staff capacities, flexibility and commitment
Agile and decisive leadership
In a crisis, the executive leadership sets the tone of calm and confidence for both the public that the institution serves and the institution’s staff. Establishing a crisis management team enables streamlined decision-making in order to respond to urgent issues on simultaneous and interdependent fronts. Keeping daily meetings short compels incisive discussions and summaries of issues in order to drive swift executive decisions. Work exigencies highlight the critical role of middle level managers in the communication loop, reinforcing staff information on the change initiatives of the crisis team, and then circling back to give feedback on whether the changes are working or not.
In Belgium, the Auxiliary Unemployment Benefits Fund (Caisse auxiliaire de paiement des allocations de chômage, CAPAC) and the National Employment Office (Office national de l'emploi, ONEM) quickly realized the immediate need for a new work organization that maximized teleworking and simplified benefit processes by requiring less documentation, no physical contact, and going digital. The need to simplify qualifying conditions in order to release benefit payments within very short timeframes prevailed over control measures that are standard in periods of normalcy. To avert the risks that such easing of conditions could create, staff at the Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) took updated training on teleworking to observe as close adherence as possible to simplified procedures and control measures, and to discourage individual improvisation. At the same time, the ESDC engaged early with auditors to proactively consult on the approaches to simplify processes.
Real-time collection and sharing of data and information
The crisis highlighted the fundamental importance of being able to collect and share information in real time, and of a secure framework for data sharing. The accessibility of quality information enables real time decision making and all the advantages that it brings.
Estonia is among a select group of countries that has the highest e-government development index ratings as measured by the United Nations. Estonians are able to access a wide range of online services including social security benefits through secure digital IDs.
Because of its access to quality information, the Estonian National Social Insurance Board (NSIB) has been able to proactively respond to clients’ needs. For example, with the cancellation of all medical appointments as a safeguard against the virus, disability benefits are extended automatically by six months. Similarly, social rehabilitation services expiring during the emergency period are extended until the end of the year.
Dependable digital connectivity
The caveat to real-time data collection and sharing is that it will work only with good connectivity. This is of particular concern for countries where internet services are lagging behind population needs. Providing the physical infrastructure is well beyond the realm of social security policy but the crisis has underlined its criticality. Expanding and providing dependable digital connectivity will support teleworking, e-government and online services that, as this crisis proves, provides far greater good than merely facilitating business and services: it actually saves lives and livelihoods. Institutions in Belgium, Estonia and Spain are leveraging shared data and dependable communication infrastructure to support teleworking staff as well as to facilitate the collaboration with other organizations.
Staff capacities, flexibility and commitment
Despite the closure of offices during the pandemic, institutions are depending on their staff to cope with the massive demand for social security benefits and services. This is done primarily through the redeployment of staff from less critical activities to benefit delivery; ramping up call centre services to support client calls; and work-from-home arrangements supported by laptops, mobiles and virtual work stations. The common ground is the work ethic of the staff, their commitment to solidarity and team work, and their loyalty to the public that they serve.
Institutions in Estonia and Belgium that have adopted teleworking long before the outbreak of the virus are realizing the benefits of the arrangement. On the other hand, institutions that are in the middle of their digital journey find it necessary to keep offices open, with strict precautionary measures amidst the pandemic.
At the Social Security Organisation (PERKESO) of Malaysia, the staff rotate on a weekly basis between working in the office and working from home. Social distancing and sanitation standards are among the safeguards, including drop boxes to minimize physical contact. Similarly, staff at the Japan Pension Service (JPS) alternate between office work and telework every other day. Its local offices are open but the JPS strongly encourages clients to use telephones, e-services and chatbots.
Flexible hours, time-phased shifts and implementing its emergency business continuity plan are helping the National Pension Service (NPS) of the Republic of Korea to continue its seamless pension payment service. Teams of primary, secondary and alternative officer-in-charge provide back-up support to each other to ensure the continuity of work should any member of the team becomes indisposed. Spanish social security institutions are implementing teleworking for customer services and back-end tasks in very short delays. In Côte d’Ivoire, despite government’s deferral of contribution payments by three months to alleviate business liquidity needs, and despite shorter working hours because of curfews and minimum office staff as safety measures, benefit payments are up to speed at a 90 per cent processing rate because of team work at the Social Insurance Institute – National Social Insurance Fund (Institution de prévoyance sociale - Caisse nationale de prévoyance sociale).
Just as the COVID-19 crisis reveals the agility, speed and resilience of social security institutions, so does it reveal areas for improvement. The staff and dynamic leadership of ISSA member organizations are the primary enablers of this resilience. The crisis also brings to the fore the value of digitalization, electronic payments, automation and databases accessible from a distance. Innovations in these areas enhance institutional resilience, especially in the face of situations that impose extreme demands on infrastructure and resources.