Social security in the human-and-digital age: Some key insights

Social security in the human-and-digital age: Some key insights

At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the immediate response of governments has been massive in both scale and coverage, to cushion the health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic. A raft of emergency measures were urgently implemented including ad hoc income transfers and unemployment benefits, targeted subsidies, free COVID-19 tests, subsidized health care and other support programmes. In many countries, governments have relied on social security institutions to distribute these subsidies and benefits, including to the most vulnerable groups especially low-income earners, informal sector workers, women, migrants and the youth.

Eleven months into the crisis, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel remains dim. Countries are grappling with a second or third wave of infections even as vaccination campaigns are just getting under way. The numbers are grim, with over 96 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, more than 2 million deaths, and hundreds of millions of jobs lost. Efforts to re-start economies, stem the loss of jobs and gain these back depend critically on the continued implementation of government stabilization and support programmes as well as the wide distribution and effectiveness of the vaccines and the continued observance of quarantine, health and social distancing protocols. The road ahead remains difficult and challenging.

Amidst this crisis, social security institutions are at the forefront with government in efforts to stabilize the economy and protect the lives and livelihoods of the public. Particularly at this time, social security benefits constitute an important flow of income that supports individual and family spending which, in turn, mitigates to some degree the recessionary effects of the pandemic.

Just as importantly, governments discovered that they could rely on social security institutions to deliver – practically at a moment’s notice – the raft of emergency benefits and subsidies to the public. By deftly shifting operations to a virtual environment that blends human skills and proficiencies with digital technologies, social security institutions are responding remarkably to the scale and urgency of public needs brought on by the pandemic.

Social security:  a human-and-digital response

For social security administrators, the past eleven months were very intense, to say the least. Despite the severe conditions imposed by the pandemic, social security institutions have risen to the challenge of delivering benefits and services. With dependable internet connectivity, external access to quality databases and secure business processes, the experience so far shows that teleworking staff can quickly and reliably process most benefits and services using a computer, a mouse or some mobile device.

The integrated approach to human-and-digital capabilities that social security institutions have been investing in for the past few years has increased staff resiliency and the use of digital technologies. In Brazil, the end-to-end automation of benefits enabled the National Social Security Institute to re-design business processes into standardized digital work routines. The Acceleration Hub of Employment and Social Development Canada accustomed its staff to work in-person and virtual collaboration and to approach client-centred service solutions through design-thinking, iterative processes that proved prescient during the crisis.

Digital is speed, security and efficiency, characteristics that rank high in public expectations and which are proving to be uniquely responsive at a time when face-to-face transactions carry significant health risks. The pandemic thus accelerated the paradigm shift in the delivery of social security from manual, paper-based and in-person processes to online platforms and real time, secure digital services.

In two recent ISSA webinars, Belgium and Canada, and Finland and Malaysia, affirmed unequivocally that the blending of human skills and digital technologies is a necessity and is no longer optional in social security administration. Particularly in a crisis, a digital ecosystem enables a rapid response to the needs of the public.

For Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), while an emergency playbook initially estimated 50,000 additional unemployment claims per week, the ESDC actually received 250,000 claims per day in the initial weeks of the crisis. Teleworking staff managed to process these in record time thanks to digital solutions.

To cope with the surge in demand for unemployment benefits, the Auxiliary Unemployment Benefits Fund (CAPAC) of Belgium carried out in two months its five-year strategic plan to shift staff to teleworking arrangements and to innovate the use of apps and digital technologies. The Social Insurance Institution (KELA) of Finland created a new chatbot in eight days to cater to COVID-19 inquiries. Similarly, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) of Malaysia launched in a matter of a few days an online system to dispense with in-person applications for benefits.

Some key insights

The panellists in the two webinars shared a number of important practical insights on some of the factors that enhanced the ability of their institutions to respond rapidly to the pandemic as well as some challenges arising from telework:    

  1. Decisive leadership that inspires unity of purpose is key. Transparency, trust and the sharing of information enable decision-making in real time. Hierarchy and oversight structures can slow down the ability to react quickly and make timely decisions as opposed to the quick iteration of prototypes.
  2. In times of crisis, doing things faster may be more important than aiming for perfection right from the start. Perfection as a standard can hold back innovation. Implementing solutions that are initially only 80 per cent functional but are iterated subsequently to perfection delivers immediate value and assurance to citizens.
  3. Simplicity translates to speed. The simpler a policy is to meet people’s needs, the easier it is to administer. The pandemic revealed many complexities in the systems and rules within and between institutions in the implementation of policy. Cutting through the complexities by legislative or government action expedited the delivery of benefits and services.
  4. When the pandemic recedes, there could be a tendency to going back to the pre-pandemic rules, roles and systems because these are not easy to change. The experience of the public, however, in terms of the convenience and efficiency of virtualized services would sustain the push towards simpler programmes that meet client needs but allow them greater autonomy.    
  5. Despite the sudden shift to teleworking due to the pandemic, social security staff are showing exemplary commitment to and passion for public service. However, the prolonged teleworking arrangements could create mental health issues. Virtual communities, helplines and getting people together in virtual team events are among the tools to cope with these challenges.
  6. Teleworking is here to stay but it will bring new challenges in terms of managing, supporting and enabling employees in a work environment that is virtual, mobile and rapidly evolving. Sustaining corporate culture and fostering a team spirit is one specific issue. Staff and supervisors need to build a working relationship based on trust, with agreed-upon productivity metrics to verify that trust. A scheduling tool can develop collaborative telework schedules between the supervisor and the staff to achieve well-defined outcomes and work goals.
  7. A digitally adept workforce innovates with speed and velocity. Many social security institutions are proudly taking credit for getting things done in unprecedented, record-breaking times: from putting a vast majority of its staff on telework, to the launching of new online platforms, new apps, new virtual services, and through to getting legislation approved to cut through archaic internal or inter-agency deadlocks. Social security administrators largely attribute this to the staff’s passion for and commitment to public service, recognizing that the mother lode of genius and innovation rests in the human proficiencies for leadership, ideation, collaboration and co-creation.
  8. For institutions in developing countries that are on the initial stages of planning the digital journey, a good point to start with would be an assessment of the availability and reliability of internet connectivity at the national level. A customer-centric approach would leverage the most common devices used by its clients, which usually are mobile phones. Digital services built around these devices would be a logical beginning.  


The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the paradigm shift to the virtual delivery of social security. If the pandemic were the portent of things to come, then the virtual delivery of benefits and services would be uniquely effective and appropriate because it dispenses with the need for face-to-face transactions. Eleven months into the pandemic, administrators have found in the human-and-digital solutions a stable, safe and reliable response to the public’s service needs in social security.

On 28 January 2021, the ISSA Virtual Symposium on Leadership in Social Security will explore further the fundamental and pervasive change in the institutional mindset that is accompanying the paradigm shift to the virtual delivery of social security benefits and services. The experience of the pandemic is making administrators realize that ideation, creation and innovation are better achieved by blending staff skills and capacities with digital technologies.

The Symposium will also explore how social security institutions are using insights from psychology, consumer choice and social sciences to improve social security outcomes. Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and Big Data are enabling the analyses of information and prediction of people’s needs and responses. By using behavioural insights, the outcomes in more areas of social security administration may be improved by human-and-digital solutions.