Digital technologies are fundamentally transforming how public services are designed and delivered. This article zooms in on the implementation of digital inclusion strategies among European ISSA member institutions.
Globally, more than 84 per cent of national governments now offer at least one online service, with more than 22 per cent of the countries progressing to a higher e-Government development index (EGDI) group since 2018 (UNDESA, 2020). Despite these increased opportunities, access to and use of digital infrastructure and tools is uneven. An estimated 2.9 billion people do not use the Internet (ITU, 2021). The digital divide is even starker when viewed from the lens of age, gender, poverty and location. While the potential positive impacts of the digital transformation are substantial, without deliberate efforts to correct existing digital inequities, it may compound existing vulnerabilities.
The International Social Security Association (ISSA) has engaged on these issues through various activities. Recognizing the mounting evidence of the exclusionary impacts of digitalization globally, the ISSA organized four webinars on digital inclusion in 2021. It invited partner and member institutions across the globe to share good practices on fostering digital inclusion in social security services, skills challenges, accessibility challenges, and other challenges and practices to address digital barriers. A panel at the 16th ISSA International Conference on Information and Communication Technology in Social Security (ICT 2022) in Tallinn, Estonia, also focused on this topic.
These events were used to conduct a survey of digital inclusion practices and challenges across social security agencies, which culminated in the release of the flagship report, Digital inclusion – Improving social security delivery (ISSA and UNU-EGOV, 2022). 138 representatives across 74 social security institutions in 64 countries participated in the survey, documenting the factors at play in terms of digital inclusion – a first of its kind in the social security sector. Combined with experiences shared in ISSA events, the analysis showed that three broad factors mediate the ultimate impacts of digitalization on client outcomes:
- Access relates to the ease of access to the internet and associated technologies such as devices, electricity, and so on.
- Skills and capacities refer to the ability of the clients to engage effectively with digital service delivery models.
- An enabling environment is one where digital inclusion is embedded into the strategy, operational models and culture underpinning of social security organizations. This includes integrated service provision, data sharing, referrals and linkages, communication and outreach, among other things.
In terms of their relative impact on digital inclusion, two main barriers emerge: (i) lack of skills and capacities, which was highlighted by 65 per cent of the respondents and (ii) limited access, which was reported by 52 per cent of the respondents. These barriers are reported to be higher for both women and older persons, reiterating the greater risks of exclusion arising from the digitalization of services for those facing broader social and economic risks.
While these are difficult challenges, they are not insurmountable. As evident from the survey (Figure 1), social security institutions already undertake a range of complementary actions to bridge gaps in access and skills (or plan to do so) that hinder their clients from taking advantage of digital services. Some of these strategies engage directly with clients, whether it's providing intermediation, training or subsidized devices. Other strategies are less direct, such as the use of everyday language in communication, logical and intuitive user-experience and user-interfaces, along with the implementation of communication and design guides and service standards. This is in line with the ISSA Guidelines on communication, on service quality, on good governance, on administrative solutions for coverage extension, and on information and communication technology (ICT) (ISSA, 2019a, 2019b, 2022a and 2022b) as well as the United Nations Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation (UN, 2020).
Figure 1. Top two strategies to overcome barriers to digital inclusion
Source: ISSA, UNU-EGOV, 2022.
Experiences in digital inclusion from Europe
This article focuses on the implementation of digital inclusion strategies among European ISSA member institutions. Europe a global leader in Internet access , with 85 per cent of the households estimated to have had Internet access in 2019, compared to 57 per cent globally (ITU, 2021). Consistent with high-income economies, public services in the region have been undergoing digital transformation for decades, resulting in comparatively advanced levels of e-government. For instance, the Digital Economy and Society Index found that on average 75 per cent of the administrative processes for major life events can be done online across European Union (EU) Member States. Countries such as Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta scored more than 90 per cent on this measure (European Commission, 2021).
Yet, only a little over half the population of the EU used the Internet to interact with public authorities and access public services. While 84 per cent used the internet regularly, only 56 per cent possessed basic digital skills (Eurostat, 2019). Therefore, a broader enabling environment, early adoption of digital service delivery models, and a strong commitment to digitalization are not automatic guarantees of digital inclusion. These numbers reinforce the importance of deliberately pursuing digital inclusion – as demonstrated by the good practices summarized below – regardless of where a country is in terms of its economic trajectory.
Digital Inclusion Programme - National Family Allowances Fund, France
In 2020, 35 per cent of the French population experienced at least one form of difficulty which prevented them from fully taking advantage of digital and Internet tools. Yet, the service delivery mechanisms for the Family Benefit Funds (Caisse d’allocations familiales – CAF) of the National Family Allowances Fund (Caisse nationale d'allocations familiales – CNAF) are completely online. Indeed, 25 per cent of visitors to the CAF reception centres are beginners in the use of digital technology and need more support. Therefore, the CNAF introduced a digital inclusion programme comprised of four main pillars: (i) identifying the sections of the public which are not comfortable with digital channels; (ii) offering support for the completion of CAF online procedures; (iii) directing the public in need of training in basic digital skills to digital mediation partners; and (iv) integrating the work of other players (Corbobesse, 2022). As part of the digital inclusion programme, 810 staff members are dedicated to digital support in reception areas. The ISSA Guidelines on Service Quality (Guidelines 3, 6 and 14) and the ISSA Guidelines on Administrative Solutions for Coverage Extension (Guidelines 6 and 19) informed the design of the programme.
A key component of the digital inclusion programme was the step-by-step printed tutorials in a language that is easy to read and understand (National Family Allowances Fund, 2022a). While the primary aim was to support people with intellectual disabilities, the materials helped a broader range of digitally excluded groups such as the less literate, non-French speakers and children acting as caregivers. The tutorials emphasized simplified language, unlike standard administrative materials that are complex and rigid. They focused on key topics such as understanding the statement of resources (which is a key criterion for minimum social benefits), downloading and navigating mobile applications, and contacting alternative service delivery channels. The printed tutorials were widely distributed through local partners, and electronic versions were disseminated on the CNAF website.
Administrative mediation – National Family Allowances Fund, France
While the growing use of data-driven automated decision-making has enabled social security institutions to achieve efficiencies amid growing operational constraints, applicants are left contending with a black box. To avoid applicants to the CAF having to navigate an opaque digital maze, the CNAF created a network of administrative mediators that applicants can go to if they have any concerns about why a benefit has been refused, or about the amount of benefit (National Family Allowances Fund, 2022b). Administrative mediation consists of a network of experts who assist the CAF in applying the appropriate legislation and management rules in order to pay a family or social benefit legitimately and at the right amount. This administrative mediation helps to ensure recipients receive the exact benefits to which they are entitled while avoiding recourse to more cumbersome and sometimes more difficult litigation proceedings by beneficiaries who are in the greatest financial need and the least at ease with administrative procedures.
The CAF network of administrative mediators has a total of 144 agents across departmental, regional and national levels. A national centre, working in conjunction with local mediators, handles mediation requests received by the CNAF. The design of the system is in line with the ISSA Guidelines on Service Quality, with a focus on emphasizing participant voice and striving for service excellence through continuous improvement.
State Social Insurance Agency, Latvia
The Latvian State Social Insurance Agency (SSIA) provides 33 e-services through the country's public administration portal. At the same time, to prevent digital exclusion, these services can be accessed physically via the State and Local Government Unified Customer Service Centres (Service Centres). While the Service Centres helped those without sufficient digital skills and resources, continued physical applications meant the agency's iwas unable to fully take advantage of digitalization to reduce information processing burden. Therefore, the SSIA created an "e-assistant" facility to promote equal access to its e-services (State Social Insurance Agency, 2022). An e-assistant is an employee of the Service Centres who is entrusted to apply for SSIA's benefits on behalf of the client . A person has to visit the nearest Service Centre with an identity document and ask a Service Centre employee for help to complete the formalities and authorization. After signing the authorization, the e-assistant applies for the required SSIA service electronically on behalf of the client and informs the client of anticipated timelines for decision-making and processing.
The e-assistant started out as a pilot across seven Service Centres, and since 2019, is available across 122 Service Centres in 35 municipalities. The e-assistant not only empowers clients to make the digital transition, it also reduces the administrative burden of the SSIA, as the number of applications submitted electronically has expanded, saving time for on-site customer service and processing of paper applications. The e-assistant was conceptualized in line with the recommendations of the ISSA Guidelines on Information and Communication Technology and the ISSA Guidelines on Good Governance, which recommend combining service delivery mechanisms to extend coverage to difficult-to-reach populations while providing training for employees to acquire new skills and take full advantage of technology.
Social Insurance for Agriculture, Forestry and Horticulture, Germany
The Social Insurance for Agriculture, Forestry and Horticulture (Sozialversicherung für Landwirtschaft, Forsten und Gartenbau – SVLFG) sought to create a web platform to improve communication around issues of occupational health and safety aimed at seasonal workers. Given that most seasonal workers in Germany are from Eastern Europe, designing a web platform which addressed the language and cultural barriers was key. Therefore, a web app was made available in nine different languages (Social Insurance for Agriculture, Forestry and Horticulture, 2022). The design emphasized clarity of information over comprehensive coverage of issues. Drawing on the ISSA Guidelines on Prevention of Occupational Risks and the ISSA Guidelines on Workplace Health Promotion, it used a mix of text, images and videos to create easily digestible and engaging content. The web app included frequently asked questions at the end of each chapter, which were updated frequently to incorporate real-world questions raised by workers. It also highlighted alternative channels available to workers for queries such as telephone and email. The app was first made available in April 2021.
Social Insurance Institution, Finland
Inclusive design has been integral to the Social Insurance Institution's (Kela) multi-channel services (Social Insurance Institution, 2021). While Kela sees digital as the future, a mix of channels exist, given differential levels of digital adoption among clients. These include 147 citizen service points, teleservice-enabled points in 79 municipalities, e-services, and a contact centre. To encourage digital transition, the agency emphasizes digital support and guidance. Further, digital services are refined constantly based on data and client feedback.
The Kela chatbot is an example of the organization's commitment to inclusive digitalization. The chatbot was motivated by clients’ struggles with understanding and completing benefit applications digitally. First launched in 2017, the chatbot makes it easier to discover and interpret information and to complete benefit applications. The chatbot has been designed to speak clearly in the "human language", and offer concise, clearly prioritized information. It understands and speaks the country’s two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and also understands English. The most innovative aspect of the chatbot is the use of contextual variables. These are used to provide tips that can help customers resolve their issues without having to ask the bot a single question. For instance, the chatbot can automatically suggest a date format for entering a due date, sources used to obtain information on the applicant's spouse, and so on.
National Social Insurance Board, Estonia
Although 98 per cent of the Estonian population uses the Internet, ease of access and use are not evenly distributed. The Estonian National Social Insurance Board (ENSIB) found that its client base fell into three segments in terms of digital adoption: (i) family benefit users; (ii) people with special needs; and (iii) pensioners or retired people (65+). While family benefit users are almost universally comfortable with digital channels, the other two categories required targeted strategies for inclusion. Although people with special needs have access to Internet and are digitally skilled, they typically do not trust virtual services. Therefore, ENSIB prioritized phone calls to them in addition to email notifications regarding benefits. Retirees faced issues particularly regarding ID authentication. In Estonia, all personally identifiable information is held in a self-service portal, which can be accessed by logging in via the Estonian ID-card or via mobile-ID or smart-ID (Vaikmaa, 2021). As many senior citizens had either lost their ID-card codes or struggled with logging in, ENSIB set up alternative authentication routes depending on the circumstances. For instance, senior Estonians living abroad often use Skype for authenticating their identity via the webcam.
The e-service portal emphasizes good design and communication as the foundation for inclusion. For instance, a proactive offer of potentially eligible family benefits is usually the first thing users see as soon as they log in to the self-service portal. The agency also requires that texts used in e-services be comprehensible to a person with as low as a ninth-grade education.
Table 1 summarizes the results these institutions have been able to achieve through digital inclusion initiatives.
|CNAF, France – Digital Inclusion Program||
|CNAF, France – Administrative mediation||
Critical success factors
Identifying clients who are likely to be excluded and incorporating their inputs is key to inclusion. In the ISSA and UNU-EGOV survey, social security organizations reported that formal sector employers and employees were most likely to use their e-services. In contrast, 50 per cent of them said that pensioners and senior citizens over 65 rarely used their e-services, despite this segment being core to the social security institutions' client base. Therefore, digital service offerings must incorporate differential mitigation techniques to barriers faced by specific groups. For instance, in France, the CNAF co-developed the training materials with people with intellectual disabilities, drawing on the user group for terms commonly used and validating the tutorial with them. In Germany, the web app is being updated based on a survey of 360 seasonal workers from over 50 businesses and interviews with business operators. Designing with the users follows a continuum; institutions must be pragmatic about resources available and explore approaches accordingly. For instance, co-development, as implemented by CNAF, requires considerable time and resources, unlike user research conducted in Germany, which is less intensive.
Front-office staff, such as customer support specialists and caseworkers, can enrich the development team's understanding of user preferences. The complexity of software development often means that solutions are conceived by a small group comprising the business owner and the IT specialists. For instance, "one size fit all" approaches, or over-complicated solutions not considering users' characteristics could be challenging. In Finland, Kela closely involved customer service executives in the development process, as they were the only ones who could fully anticipate and intuitively answer client queries.
Designing inclusion initiatives together with learning and evaluation strategies. Systematically building inclusive solutions and strategies requires a designated strategy which is backed by adequate resources. In France for instance, CNAF's digital inclusion programme relies on two "laboratories" (Isère and Nord) that experiment and evaluate digital inclusion initiatives. Each digital inclusion initiative is tested for effectiveness based on a structured evaluation protocol. The most promising developments are integrated into the core curriculum after they are signed off by the designated steering committee.
Targeted outreach to traditionally excluded groups to correct imbalances in digital uptake. In the ISSA and UNU-EGOV survey, 30 per cent of respondents reported that clients were not aware of their online services. As the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights notes, lack of awareness of the existence of social protection schemes is the single most frequent type of non-take-up, based on the results of a worldwide survey (De Schutter, 2022). Recognizing this, the SVLFG in Germany disseminated information about the web app through posters, business operators' visiting cards, training sessions and a media campaign comprising articles, press releases, newsletters and social media content. In France, CNAF distributed tutorials to local partners who are more likely to physically interact with targeted users. In line with this experience, CNAF is improving its outreach strategy for the mediation network, as lack of awareness of the existence of the network has been a persistent challenge.
A multi-channel service delivery strategy which combines digital and non-digital mechanisms as complements is most likely to enhance inclusion. Affordable access to digital technologies depends on structural changes such as economic development and regulatory reform. Digital skills and capacities are likely to become less salient bottlenecks as client cohorts tend to become dominated by "digital natives", i.e. people born since the 1990s–2000s who have worked and lived with digital technology all their adult life. Until these cohorts are present in each age group - non-digital alternatives and intermediation will be necessary. As the ISSA and UNU-EGOV survey shows, social security organizations are cognizant of this. Although an overwhelming 91 per cent reported that they provide services online, 86 per cent also noted the co-existence of physical services. Both CNAF and Kela prioritize digital adoption, but at the same time offer complementary human touchpoints as a reinforcement mechanism. Similarly, the e-assistant of SSIA in Latvia provides the interim support for inclusive digital transition.
As the World Development Report presciently noted in 2016, "without strong analog components [to digital technologies] opportunities may turn into risks" (World Bank, 2016). There can be no better testament to this than Estonia. In 2015, when 88 per cent of the population used the Internet, only 40 per cent of ENSIB’s family benefit clients used its e-services, reaching 50 per cent in bigger cities but plummeting to 10 percent in remote parts of the country (Sirendi and Taveter, 2016). While Estonia is globally known for its technological capabilities, what is relatively less acknowledged – and perhaps equally important – is the significant complementary policy investments done by the national government to enhance digital skills and access to drive up adoption of digital services across government institutions (Buhr et al., 2017; OECD, 2020).
Whether digitalization removes barriers to social security depends on the availability, affordability and accessibility of these digital technologies among target client groups. When these factors are unevenly present across clients, digitalization can leave certain clients worse off if there are no accompanying strategies. The good practices presented in this article highlight a range of strategies thatsocial security institutions can employ to ensure that going digital truly includes everyone. First, it is important to constantly ask “who is being left behind” by any technology choice. Globally, evidence is unanimous that women, persons with disabilities, children, the elderly, marginalized communities, and the remotely located, face significantly more challenges to digital social security services than the average population. Second, it is important to include these groups in the design process. Third, communication, channel, and service design should incorporate the needs of these users to achieve ease of use and accessibility for all. Often, this encompasses modifying the digital service delivery channels to include non-digital mechanisms as seen in the cases from France, Finland and Latvia. Finally, "you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. Therefore, defining digital inclusion metrics and monitoring them across user groups and time is crucial to prioritize and target initiatives as well as learn from them (UNU-EGOV, 2019).
Securing equitable access and inclusion of all communities in an increasingly digital society is a vital cross-cutting goal in the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda. The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation rightly identifies digital inclusion among the core pillars of its agenda. While digital tools have been a lifeline for millions of people, as the Roadmap notes, “without prompt action, there is a risk of layering the current barriers to digital inclusion on top of existing obstacles to development” (UN, 2020). As early adopters of digitalization, European ISSA member institutions have shown how such risks can be mitigated with carefully designed user-centric strategies.
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