Towards customer-centric design and agile methodologies in social security institutions

Towards customer-centric design and agile methodologies in social security institutions

As social security institutions expand digital services, they are gearing up towards customer-centric design and agile methodologies for people-oriented service delivery. This articles introduces recent practices, highlights the importance of design-thinking and agile approaches and points to barriers and facilitating factors.

While social security institutions have historically been successful in implementing digital services, target users have typically had high technological capacity. Customers, such as employers and internal staff within the organizations, have benefited from the digitalization of services where the value obtained from these new services is significantly higher than any investment required to build the ecosystem or adapt to the new services.

Over the past couple of decades, when organizations have deployed services for individuals, in many cases these services were based on the social security business users’ perception of what the customers needed. The first generation of digital services were designed around the needs, processes, and functions of the service providers, i.e. government agencies. Therefore, they largely involved the automation of existing services and digitalization of paper records with a focus on efficiency gains.

While this has allowed social security institutions to cover many people, users have still been expected to have a certain digital capacity to access services. Over the last five years, social security institutions have evolved and have begun considering individuals’ very diverse and specific needs and levels of digital capacity, designing digital services based on individuals’ characteristics. This strategy switch has resulted in social security institutions shifting from a one-size-fits-all approach to “customer-centric” approaches developing solutions that place people at the centre of services that are tailored for different groups.

The COVID-19 crisis accelerated digital transformation and digital service delivery, however, citizens’ uptake of digital services has always been a challenge even in advanced countries (Welby and Hui Yan Tan, 2022). A common challenge in the adoption of digital services is that the design of digital services is not always responsive to citizens’ needs. Indeed, in a survey of 24,500 citizens across 36 countries after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, only half the respondents felt that online services met all or most of their needs. In fact, 7 out of 10 users experienced problems during their most recent digital interaction with the government (Mailes, Carrasco and Arcuri, 2021).

In addressing these issues, more and more government agencies have evolved from a government-centric paradigm of digital transformation to a customer- or citizen-centric approach (OECD, 2009; World Bank, 2022). Customer-centric design is focused on the differential needs of various users. In this approach, governments actively collaborate with users to co-design, prototype, test, and scale services. Research shows that the use of citizen-centred approaches can result in services that better meet needs and have improved usability and reliability from a greater range of users (World Bank, 2022).

Design thinking and agile methodologies

Design thinking is among the key methodologies and approaches that can be used to create and develop customer-centric products and services. Design thinking encompasses five stages: Empathizing and interacting with users; defining the problem; ideating to develop solutions; prototyping the services; and testing the service. Unlike traditional approaches where agencies conducted user acceptance testing at the end of the development cycle to identify any bugs before roll-out, design thinking emphasizes user engagement and feedback at each of the five stages.

New information and communication technology (ICT) application development methodologies are needed to develop customer-centric applications. Agile methodologies are indispensable to implement design thinking. Traditionally, digital public services took the “waterfall” approach: institution’s business users and “policy teams would develop an approach before handing off to a procurement process” or an internal application analysis team “that specified deliverables and contracts an external supplier, who, in turn, provided the finished service to a fourth team to operate” (Welby and Hui Yan Tan, 2022). Such a fragmented and siloed approach hinders/fails to create a shared understanding regarding the objectives of the service or product, and therefore, undermines the potential of the digitalization of services.

Agile methodologies emphasize cross-functional collaboration and an iterative test-and-learn approach to delivering products and services. It allows teams to explore, fail quickly, and correct their course in response to lessons learnt. Estimates suggest that agile can deliver a 10 per cent to 20 per cent increase in customer satisfaction, two to four times faster delivery of new products, and 15 per cent to 25 per cent reductions in development costs (Awad et. al., 2022). In other words, the new customer-centric and agile methodologies allow social security institutions to look beyond the efficiency gains that can be obtained by traditional methodologies. Instead, they can focus on inclusion by introducing new approaches that can help address the specific needs and capacity of a broader base of users, increase the uptake of services by individuals and expand the coverage of services to a broader citizen base.

Figure 1. Design thinking process

Figure 1 - Design thinking process

Experiences of ISSA member institutions

Given the growing imperative to build customer-centric products and services, social security institutions have also begun implementing design thinking and agile methodologies in recent years. This has meant setting up multi-disciplinary teams, integrating branch representatives as well as customers as part of a co‑creation process. Collaboration by default is emerging as one of the core management practices in social security institutions (ISSA, 2021).

The International Social Security Association (ISSA) has been guiding the transition of its members towards these new practices in various forms. Guideline 9 of the ISSA Guidelines on Service Quality reiterates the five stages of design thinking in social security institutions (ISSA, 2019). Guideline 14 of the ISSA Guidelines on Information and Communication Technology explains how organizations can apply the so-called Agile and DevOps approaches to improve the coordination between the business, development and operations areas (ISSA, 2022a). Furthermore, Section B.4.2 of the newly released ISSA Guidelines Continuity and Resilience of Social Security Services and Systems (ISSA, 2022b) provides some guidance on applying agile development and operations to achieve business continuity. Moreover, a dedicated session on building e-services around beneficiaries at the 16th ISSA International Conference on Information and Communication Technology in Social Security as well as webinars have showcased emerging experiences around these topics. Additionally, a specific parallel session was dedicated at the 2022 World Social Security Forum in Marrakech, Morocco to discuss “People-centred social security in the human-digital age”.

CDG Prévoyance, Morocco

Although CDG Prévoyance started digitizing its services in 2003, physical channels continued to dominate (CDG Prévoyance, 2020 & 2022). This is because the agency historically used the waterfall model of development and largely relied on their perceived understanding of needs rather than direct engagement with clients. Starting in 2018, CDG Prévoyance initiated a paradigm shift towards client-centric approaches which involved rapid iterative testing and feedback loops (Figure 2). Such an approach was enabled by scrum methodologies for dynamic participatory project management and design thinking for approaching problems from the users’ point of view.

Figure 2. Design thinking and agile methodologies in action at the CDG Prévoyance

Figure 2. Design thinking and agile methodologies in action at the CDG Prévoyance

The new client-centric approach involved the following steps: (i) Organizing design thinking workshops with clients; (ii) identifying the key issues; (iii) depending on the issues, organizing hackathons by drawing on collective intelligence within the fund ecosystem; (iv) jointly with clients, devising and prototyping solutions to the issues identified; (v) rapidly working up these solutions and fine-tuning the end products based on a series of client workshops; and (iv) rolling out the solutions accompanied by a communications plan. By way of example, in 2019 CDG Prévoyance organized the first-ever hackathon in the field of social security funds. This hackathon attracted large numbers of internal participants along with coaches, industry experts, 15 start‑ups and several pensioners and annuitant associations (an annuitant is an individual who is entitled to collect the regular payments of a pension or an annuity investment). A number of innovative solutions emerged from the hackathon, such as a chatbot – a virtual agent who follows the processing of client files, a narration solution enabling illiterate or visually impaired users to listen to the content of an application, and a smart notification system.

General Treasury of Social Security, Spain

The General Treasury of Social Security (TGSS) in Spain implemented agile methodologies to build a customer-centric portal for citizens (Arratia García, 2022) and used this new methodology to implement a portal known as “Importass” (TGSS, 2022). This solution was aimed at household employees and self‑employed workers, and represented a fundamental transformation in the approach to software development at the TGSS. Based on the principles of agile and design thinking, Importass was developed by self‑organized cross‑functional teams following an iterative development cycle. The teams started with minimum working requirements, emphasizing early and continuous delivery over short iterative timelines. Quantitative analysis, service design and user experience research, process analysis and process re‑engineering were key throughout the development process. The teams analyzed existing data to understand the user profiles and design services accordingly. Focus group discussions, employee and citizen interviews, shadowing, and card sorting helped teams gather a rich understanding of users’ needs. The success of the approach is evident in the widespread adoption of the portal by citizens.

General Organization for Social Insurance, Saudi Arabia

The General Organization of Social Insurance (GOSI) of Saudi Arabia launched an agile transformation programme to transform its operating model from a “project-centric” to “product-centric” delivery model (GOSI, 2021). Historically, the GOSI’s software development processes were structured around the plan, build and run model, where teams operated in their respective silos, leading to divergent priorities, slower development, and increasing costs. The agile transformation programme sought to shift from the traditional way of working towards cross-functional collaboration that emphasized flexibility, responsiveness and continuous improvement. The programme was first piloted in 2018 with Ameen, GOSI’s social insurance system, with success, in turn encouraging the GOSI to accelerate the transition towards the product-centric agile approach.

The new agile methodologies allowed faster delivery and operations and involved introducing new roles in the organization, new ways of working, coaching, continuous improvement, and enabling IT with the use of collaboration tools to effectively develop products. The change in culture and mindset involved not only the IT groups but involved also significant organizational changes including change management and dissemination material that properly communicated the change, as well as new human resource management that included continuous training and 360 performance evaluations.

Employment and Social Development Canada

Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) operates via several branches made up of specialized teams that are distributed across four regions. While this structure was conducive for delivery, it did not foster a collaborative approach to developing customer-centric services and products. As a result, service improvements were typically made on an ad-hoc basis, often without inputs from clients and service organizations. In 2017, to overcome this challenge, the ESDC piloted an immersive design-thinking process that translated ideas from staff, clients and partners into client-centred service solutions. This was part of a multi-year service transformation strategy that led to, among other things, the creation of the Acceleration Hub, a permanent physical space that enables both in-person and virtual collaboration to ideate service improvements and solutions using agile and repeatable design methodologies. (ESDC, 2020)

The Acceleration Hub breaks down organizational silos to gather innovative ideas from employees, clients, and partners, and translates these into client-centred service solutions. Through the Acceleration Hub, the ESDC achieved the first key outcome − creating a fully consulted five-year Service Transformation roadmap − in 16 weeks, something that had not been done in such a short timeframe before within the department. The roadmap was developed by 50 representatives from across the Department who brainstormed collectively to prioritize 33 solutions that would maximize the impact on client experience. Concept prototypes were tested with Canadians across the country to validate ideas and solicit feedback.

The Acceleration Hub is one example of how the broader service transformation strategy is changing ESDC’s organizational and governance structures and leading to new capabilities. Silos between programmes, branches and regions are quickly giving way to service management integration. In 2020, the ESDC won the ISSA Good Practice Award for the Americas for its achievements.


Table 1 summarizes the results these institutions have been able to achieve through design thinking and agile methodologies.

Table 1. Results achieved through design thinking and agile methodologies
Institution Results obtained
CDG Prévoyance, Morocco
  • Increased use of mobile/web channels to 70%
  • Nearly 150-fold increase in the salary deduction declarations from employers received via the web platform between 2018 and 2019
TGSS, Spain
  • 2.6 million users, of which 73% are new users
  • 54.7% of users access the portal from their mobile phone
  • Average time taken to register is just 6 minutes
  • 2 million working life report applications received
GOSI, Saudi Arabia
  • The average days to resolve an incident for a product decreased sharply from 39 days to 12 days after embedding support team within the product team
  • Increased predictability and consistency of team goals
ESDC, Canada
  • Consulted with 5,688 citizens/clients across all 10 provinces and three territories
  • Key customer-centric initiatives included:
    • Introduced automatic enrolment for the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Old Age Security
    • Reduced employment insurance wait times from two weeks to one
    • Launched the ESDC’s first mobile app that offered job bank search at the fingertips
    • Upgraded the Benefits and Services Finder with new features to make it easier for clients to assess their eligibility for benefits
    • Tested new ways of doing outreach in places without reliable cell phone or internet connections leading to substantial service improvements. E.g., the time needed to issue a Social Insurance Number was cut from 20 minutes to 7 minutes

Critical success factors

Coaching and training is critical to foster a transition to design thinking and agile methodologies, as well as to overcome the challenges of entrenched siloed organizational structures and workforce capability gaps. In the case of GOSI in Saudi Arabia coaching has been integral to overcoming the resistance shown by some employees to shorter delivery timelines and cross-functional collaboration. Furthermore, the agency set up communities of practice around user experience, scrums, among others, to encourage peer-based learning and cross-pollination of ideas. ESDC in Canada trained and mobilized a network of change ambassadors in every region of the country. The ambassadors are employees who participated in a hub design session and who can explain the process as well as the service transformation objectives to their colleagues. They provide peer expertise on service transformation, and are responsible for presenting ideas in their branch or region and reporting on employee feedback.

Establishing feedback loops with employees is crucial to sustaining agile ways of working. The ESDC emphasized how internal ways of working were as iterative as the development process. Lessons are always reviewed from the first sprint session to refine the collaboration set-up for subsequent sprints. Allowing employees to shape the new organizational structures has significantly increased adoption of the new methodologies.

Support and expertise from the external ecosystem are essential. Customer-centric methodologies demand a much wider range of expertise and engagement, which makes collaboration beyond the agencies’ walls indispensable. For instance, CDG Prévoyance in Morocco had strong buy-in from pension associations and external experts. This was critical where skills were lacking internally, particularly when it came to the design thinking and collective intelligence stages.

Final remarks

Globally, social security institutions – and more broadly, government agencies – are looking for ways to build agile customer-centric organizations. By 2023, 60 per cent of government agencies worldwide are estimated to integrate client-centred design methodologies into their digital service design process (Gartner, 2022). Creating customer-centred organizations to realize the full potential of these methodologies is challenging and requires long-term strategic investments, as illustrated by the ISSA members’ experiences.

Customer-centric and agile methodologies involves establishing highly specialized skills and multi-disciplinary coordination and interaction which is difficult to establish broadly throughout the organization and on a large scale. For instance, an audit of agile practices at the Social Security Administration in the United States, showed some of the challenges around adequately applying agile development methodologies and follow best practices to continuously develop solutions (OIG, 2022).

Research emphasizes four broad constraints agencies must proactively overcome (Brown, Kaur and Khan, 2020): Hierarchical cultures, gaps in talent and capabilities, outdated organizational strategies, and complex procurement and partnership processes. An iterative “test, fail and learn” approach requires institutions to normalize autonomy and failure rather than maintain a rigid failure-averse bureaucracy.

Internal capacity will need to be bolstered with critical agile capabilities such as user-centred design, product management, and automation engineering while addressing typical public sector constraints such as budgets, salary caps, and policy restrictions associated with recruitment. Bureaucratic siloed teams will need to make way for cross-functional teams, with corresponding changes in recruitment and performance management policies. Finally, design thinking and agile methodologies can create significant efficiencies in the long-term by ensuring that solutions are robust, inclusive, and impactful to citizens, clearly addressing the needs of the client.

However, customer-centric solutions do not solve everything and agencies should proactively manage expectations, and communicate the value of these approaches to secure buy-in from various internal stakeholders. The ISSA members’ experiences above provide some guidance as agencies pursue the complex yet imperative agenda of building agile customer-centred organizations.


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