Rebooting the social security workforce: The future is upon us


Rebooting the social security workforce: The future is upon us

No one could have imagined nor anticipated the global disruptions that happened in 2020. For many social security institutions, the severe health risks and safety protocols of the pandemic required a seismic shift of operations to digital technologies. In one fell swoop, teleworking, online platforms and mobile apps replaced the face-to-face, paper-based transactions of social security. The blending of human insight with digital technologies is the ace in the sleeve of every chief executive officer (CEO). Through an astute blending of human-and-digital solutions, social security continues to deliver on its mandate by ably navigating the first and succeeding waves of the pandemic.

Many are of the opinion that the scale and magnitude of the 2020 disruptions could well be a portent of the challenges in the coming years. If this were the case, then the digital transformation of social security becomes even more imperative. The future is upon us.

A fundamental change in mind-set is thus taking place across all social security institutions, from the board and management through to middle managers and junior staff: digital is the way forward. Leaders are also quick to realize that putting staff on teleworking arrangements is just the beginning of the institution’s human-and-digital journey. The opportunities and ramifications of the institution’s digital transformation go far beyond providing every employee with a computer, a mouse and external access to databases. To bring social security to the future, the institution’s business transformation through digital technologies must fully engage its most valuable asset: the people. This was the resounding message delivered by CEOs, chief transformation strategists and directors of human resources from Belgium and Canada, Estonia, Indonesia and South Africa, Finland and Malaysia, and Poland in a series of recent ISSA webinars.

The strategic alignment of people and technologies

Leadership needs to establish what digital means, the strategic objectives of going digital, and the value to be created by the institution’s digital transformation. While information and communication technology (ICT) systems define the business processes and service modalities that are doable and possible, it is human insight that discerns and drives the choice and application of these technologies. The institution’s level of digital literacy and digital fluency are embodied not in the sophistication of its ICT infrastructure per se but in a workforce that understands technologies, knows how to use them, and recognizes their potentials to amplify institutional capacities. This is why the strategic alignment of people and technologies is of primary importance to the institution’s human-and-digital journey.

The creative disruption that digital technologies are bringing to the workplace makes a compelling case for rebooting the institution’s HR function and for a greater collaboration between the institution’s chief information officer and the chief officer of human resources.

The huge challenge to the HR team is two-pronged. First, it has to translate and map the institution’s digital transformation into the skills, competencies and potentials of its staff. It needs to be one or two steps ahead in anticipating the workforce needs of the institution, and to proactively develop and recruit the emerging talent requirements. Second, the HR function needs to be reimagined and rebooted, to ensure its effectivity in managing and engaging people in the human-and-digital workplace. Since technologies and apps are available to automate and augment its administrative responsibilities, HR can pivot to and work with more focus on its strategic role. A high priority is to co-design and co-create an enabling environment that blends virtual and physical offices where teams across the institution can ideate, collaborate and innovate. The training and upskilling of staff in hard and soft skills is one of many items in a list of urgent priorities where HR is a key, strategic player and partner. Among these priorities are the three identified below.    

New expectations and new ways of working

The experience of the pandemic has reset public expectations for the next decade. Social security institutions broke their own speed records to respond to the operational pressures brought on by the pandemic. Call centres, platforms and e-services were up and running in a matter of days or a couple of weeks, many enabled by highly scalable cloud technologies. The critical parts of five- or ten-year business transformation plans to bring the institution to a target level had to be implemented within drastically reduced timelines. The urgency of needs and the spot on responsiveness of digital technologies have made speed a new core value of public services.  

The level of mobilization to respond to a crisis of pandemic proportions requires rapid solutions that can be 80 per cent functional initially, and then iterated quickly to perfection, the goal being to deliver immediate value and assurance to citizens. “There is a momentum for change and an appetite for speed. Iterations enable faster delivery because they replicate the good parts of the solution,” observed Benoît Long, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Transformation Officer of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). “A point of no return has been reached. Blending human skills and technologies is the way forward,” agreed Jean-Marc Vandenbergh, General Administrator of the Auxiliary Unemployment Benefits Fund (Caisse auxiliaire de paiement des allocations de chômageCAPAC) of Belgium.

The iterative approach is part of the design thinking method to innovation that promotes problem solving in a user-centric way. It focuses on solutions that are technically feasible, economically viable and desirable for the user (Stevens, 2020). Applications of design thinking often require the participation of a multidisciplinary team (Lewrick, Link and Leifer 2020, p. 24). Developing a clear understanding and identification of the problem is an important part of the method, which then iterates the ideation-prototyping-and-testing loop until it produces a functional prototype (Lewrick, Link and Leifer 2020, pp. 22–23).

The iterative loop of design thinking is the feature that enables speed and imparts velocity to the search for innovative solutions. It contrasts with the more familiar approaches like the “waterfall”, which breaks down a problem into linear, sequential phases that depend on the deliverables of a previous phase, to reach a solution (Wikipedia, 2021).

An institutional policy environment needs to actualize the new ways of working. By defining the policy environment, the board and management will enable the workforce to cut to the chase of doing what actually needs to be done, and to transcend the rather abstract concept of “mind-set”. It then becomes the tremendous responsibility of HR to ensure that the institution’s workforce capacities and virtual-and-physical workplace support this policy environment.  

The Acceleration Hub of ESDC Canada is an innovation that mainstreams immersive design thinking in the institution. Through the Acceleration Hub, ESDC gathers innovative ideas from employees, clients, and partners, and translates these into client-centred service solutions. The new methodology has facilitated the breaking down of organizational silos, encouraged stronger collaborations within ESDC, better relationships with other public agencies providing related services, and simpler, better services to Canadians.   

Collaboration and innovation

Collaborating to innovate may evoke images of people interacting pleasantly in the course of solving problems and doing creative work. Nothing can be farther from the truth. As Hill et al. (2014) pointed out, collaboration and innovation entail hard work that can be emotionally and intellectually difficult and strenuous (see Box 1). They identified three abilities to develop in order to nurture the institutional capacity to innovate, namely, creative abrasion, or the ability to generate ideas through discourse and debate; creative agility, or the ability to test and experiment through quick pursuit, reflection and adjustment; and creative resolution, or the ability to combine disparate and sometimes even opposing ideas.

Box 1. Paradoxes of Innovation

“At the heart of innovative problem solving is the need to both unleash individual slices of genius and harness them into collective genius. Unleashing talent is essential to developing promising ideas and options. Harnessing talent is essential to shaping those ideas and options and selecting new and useful solutions from among them.

In our research we identified six innovation paradoxes. The challenge for leaders is to help the organization continually calibrate between:

  • affirming the individual… and the group
  • supporting… and confronting
  • fostering experimentation and learning… and performance
  • promoting improvisation… and structure
  • showing patience… and urgency
  • encouraging bottom-up initiative… and intervening top-down

Leaders who stay on the right side of these paradoxes will never unleash the full genius of their people; they will have few or no ideas to harness. Those who stay on the left side will have lots of ideas and options to work with, but won’t be able to turn them into new and useful solutions; instead, conflict and chaos will reign. The correct position at any moment will depend on the circumstances. But the goal will always be to take whatever position enables the collaboration, experimentation, and integration necessary for innovation.

The leaders we studied understood how to adapt their behaviour according to the situation at hand. Conventional notions of leadership, discomfort with conflict or loss of control, and personal preferences can all limit a leader’s willingness to shift strategically across paradoxes. Many leaders find it hard not to favour one extreme over the other. Continually recalibrating requires superb judgment, courage, and persistence.

Finding solutions that are truly new and useful is not easy, in part because the process of innovation is so messy and full of the tension embodied in each of these paradoxes.”

Excerpt from Hill et al., 2014.

As Nina Nissilä, Director at the Social Insurance Institution (Kansaneläkelaitos – KELA) of Finland pointed out, “People with innovative ideas are courageous and have the integrity and willingness to go forward with their ideas. They are not intimidated by the first difficult question.”

In the context of the six paradoxes of innovation, the institution is in for a long haul to embed in its culture the three abilities of creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution. The HR team has no time to waste in prioritizing this strategic area.    

Evolving the HR function

Technology applications are creating a myriad of opportunities to improve the HR function and reboot its strategic role in the institution (see Box 2).

Noting that the skill sets of today may no longer be relevant ten years from now, the criteria for talent recruitment could perhaps be expanded to include a base of aptitudes and attitudes in addition to a base of critical skills. “We are not just looking for skills at a point in time. We are looking for people who have the disposition for life-long learning and the foundations to evolve” shared Nurhisham Hussein, Chief Strategy Officer of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) of Malaysia.

Box 2. Technology applications that are improving HR practices

“In the area of recruitment, we are already seeing chatbots assist in the screening process, with automated analytical based processes helping to match candidates. Blockchain is being used for CV verification purposes, and video-based interviewing is being utilized to not only speed up the process but bring more rigour in the interviewing process. Gamification-based techniques are increasingly being utilized to bring both assessment rigour and improved candidate experience.

Once recruited, onboarding through virtual reality-based work and job previews are being used by some organizations, all supported by automated onboarding activity so that any new employee is effective and “up and running” from Day 1. Learning and development will be significantly impacted, with a more personalized approach that includes again gamification and virtual reality for learning, nudges that trigger timely self-development support and technology that outlines possible career pathways, promotion matching and automated artificial intelligence (AI)-based coaching.

Across the rest of the employee lifecycle, complex AI and machine learning technology-based techniques formulate diagnosis and remedial insights into engagement-based feedback, productivity and workflow management support, performance dialogue and rewards-based tracking and recommendations, all driven by data and analytical predictions than can save organizations significant amounts of time and money.”

Excerpt from Khan and Millner, 2020, pp. 8–9.

All panellists agreed that rebooting the institution’s performance evaluation system is another area that deserves critical, priority attention. For institutions that have an ageing workforce, the challenge becomes even more complicated. For example, the workforce of the Social Insurance Institution (Zaklad Ubezpieczen SpolecznychZUS) of Poland spans four generations of over 43,000 employees. The pandemic was seismic for ZUS employees. The limited number of laptops with which they could work from home, and the blurring of boundaries between work and personal lives made it difficult to manage time and work-life balance. Constant communication and distance learning are enabling the coaching of managers and staff on solutions to mitigate the situation. As stressed by Joanna Drozd, Human Resources Director of ZUS, “You have to trust your people. The relationship between managers and staff is based on trust. Remote work will not compromise accountability.”

Performance evaluation in most social security institutions follow an annual cycle, where each staff member establishes goals at the beginning of the year, and receives a rating at the end the year. This practice no longer makes sense given the wide range of virtual channels to support more frequent feedback loops between managers and staff. Distributing annual goals over shorter periods allows a more timely cycle to provide feedback and to engage with staff.  
Performance metrics also need to be reimagined. In addition to the individual outcomes achieved by the staff member, there should be metrics to gauge the contributions made by staff to help others achieve their goals. Self-improvement and self-learning to develop competencies deserve recognition as well. Measures of this nature will reinforce and help develop an innovative and collaborative-by-default culture within the institution.   


When the health risks and safety protocols of the pandemic are lifted and people are back in the office, confronting the difficult but exciting challenge of the new ways of working in the human-and-digital workplace will continue. Public expectations have been reset to an even higher level because speed has become a new, core deliverable of public service. The scale and magnitude of the services that social security delivered during the pandemic is solid proof of what can be achieved when people put their minds and technologies to work together.

The world does not know what awaits in the coming years, but no one is stopping social security institutions to anticipate, plan and prepare for the future. The road ahead will not be easy. The human-and-digital journey will be fraught with challenges. On the one hand, the key is to innovate but on the other hand are the complexities of innovation where decisions are in the context of such paradoxes as experimentation vs structure, improvisation vs performance. More than ever, context becomes important and answers may be found in a spectrum rather than distinct, stand-alone choices. Precisely because there are no well-defined answers, it behoves social security leaders to set the stage to enable the institutional workforce to work hand-on-keyboard with technologies.

The future is upon us and the rebooting of the social security workforce has begun.


Hill, L. et al. 2014. “Collective genius”, in Harvard Business Review, June.

Khan, N.; Millner, D. 2020. Introduction to people analytics: A practical guide to data-driven HR. London, Kogan Page.

Lewrick, M.; Link, P; Leifer, L. 2020. The design thinking toolbox: A guide to mastering the most popular and valuable innovation methods. Hoboken, Wiley.

Stevens, E. 2020. “What is design thinking, and how do we apply it?”, in InVision, 30 January.

Wikipedia. 2021. Waterfall model. [S. l.].