People and technology sustain business and services. As new information and communication technologies were acquired, social security institutions in the Americas woke early to the efficiencies of blending human skills and digital technologies.
People and technology sustain business and services. As new information and communication technologies were acquired, social security institutions in the Americas woke early to the efficiencies of blending human skills and digital technologies. Committed to innovation in service delivery as a key factor for ensuring access and public trust, many social security institutions had started to deliberately train, equip and transition staff to a human-and-digital work environment in recent years. Clearly, human proficiencies working hand-on-keyboard with technologies was the way to go.
Fast-forwarding to 2020, these efforts contributed to enabling effective social security responses to COVID-19 in the Americas, which is among the regions worst hit by the pandemic. The United States leads the global tally in the number of cases and deaths. Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile are among the top 14 countries in the world with the highest fatalities and infection rates. Amidst the lockdowns, quarantine measures, and the volume of urgent demands of citizens, the region is proving itself equal to the challenge of delivering social security benefits and services.
Online and mobile platforms are enabling the delivery of benefits and services at a time when face-to-face transactions could quickly turn catastrophic. Working with the virtual environment in recent years has significantly amplified the region’s preparedness for what was to come. By introducing online and mobile services early on, the public was quite adept in the use of web-based platforms and mobile applications to access social security by the time COVID-19 struck. Institutions caught by the pandemic at the initial stages of the digital journey had to expedite, develop and rapidly deploy similar platforms and apps for the immediate use of the public.
More generally, the recently concluded competition for the 2020 ISSA Good Practice Award for the Americas attracting more than 130 entries highlights a wide range of innovations in the transformation to a human-and-digital service delivery framework. Human-and-digital by default is fast becoming a cardinal rule among ISSA member organizations, as evidenced by the many examples summarized in this article.
The initiatives by social security institutions in the Americas have enabled them to overcome a range of identified past service quality deficiencies. Four major developments are of particular importance in this paradigm shift in service delivery:
- The adoption of online service platforms
- The capacity to develop flexible digital solutions in times of crisis
- Integrated approaches towards human-and-digital frameworks
- Changing roles of staff towards more complex and innovative tasks
A paradigm shift in service delivery
Social security administration is benefiting in many ways from the flexibilities of going human-and-digital, in particular in the current context of the pandemic. Firstly, service delivery is increasingly based on web portals, mobile services and social media that keep the public informed 24/7 with relevant information on benefits, deferred deadlines and waived pre-requisites. Consistently, teleconsultations allay the health concerns of the public and staff alike and minimize the risks of travel and in-person consultations. Furthermore, real-time decisions on operations and business processes are possible through livestreaming platforms that keep people connected and engaged. In the backend, shared databases facilitated by digital platforms enable government agencies to coordinate virtually and minimize disruptions in public service. Finally, staff are able to to work from home arrangements accessing institutions’ information systems as well as to repeatedly access online training, with the health and COVID-19 treatment protocols currently being the timeliest.
The current context of COVID-19 brings to the fore the broader paradigm shift in service delivery that does not only improve the client experience and public trust, but ultimately enhances access to social security benefits and the impact of social security policies.
How things were. Until some years ago, applying for a social security benefit was neither convenient nor easy. The institutions themselves described the experience as far from being pleasant. A typical client experience consisted of the following:
- Institutions required in-person filing of applications and authentication of paper documents. People waited in lines and had to return for follow-up visits until the approval and release of benefits.
- Manual procedures created backlogs and errors, and prevented the standardization and automation of processes. In-person applications required counterpart staff in attendance.
- Paper-driven processes hampered data and information integration. Staff worked in silos and made isolated decisions. The distribution of work across branches was a serious issue, with some offices carrying a greater share of the workload than others.
The new era of service. The shift to a human-and-digital service framework is unleashing a more agile social security, enabling improved social security services and at the same time creating new flexibilities in programme administration. Among the significant gains are the following:
- Online service platforms. The recent years show a sea change in the delivery of social security services in the Americas, going from manual and paper-based processes to the convenience and safety of online and mobile services. The filing, collection and renewal of social security benefits as well as a host of other services including teleconsultations are available online and accessible from the comforts of home (see Table A). Benefits payments are possible through online bank transfers, debit cards, and mobile money. Member inquiry services are accessible 24/7 through chatbots, social networks and call centres. Some benefits can now be paid automatically upon meeting eligibility conditions, without the need for members to apply.
Table A. Going human-and-digital to improve the delivery of benefits and services Previously Now Argentina, National Social Security Administration
Virtual Assistance Platform
In-person filing of applications, paper-based processes; physical presence to amend personal data Electronic submission of applications; electronic release of notices and communication; electronic processing of benefits Argentina, Superintendency of Occupational Risks
Julia Lanteri, Argentina’s first civil service chatbot
In-person or phone-in service to inquire, to follow-up or to complain; repetitive nature of questions Chatbot Julia Lanteri provides automated responses to FAQs; staff are able to focus on more complicated cases Argentina, Federal Social Insurance Council
Digital transformation of pension services
In-person filing and claiming of benefits; paper documents; bottlenecks and wait-in-line service; staff assistance is often required File from home benefits; online tracking of complaints and applications; social networks and call centres; transparent, faster service Brazil, Ministry of Finance-Secretariat for Social Insurance
Online unemployment benefit procedures
In-person applications; need for prior appointment; wait-in-line service; another round of in-person appearance to appeal refused applications Online platform to submit application; online payment of benefits via banks and mobile modalities; staff assigned to other activities Colombia, Colombian Pension Administration
In-person collection of pensions from banks or from the institution (for those without bank accounts)
In-person visits to access services; paper-based processes
Massive creation of bank accounts; online payment of pensions; issuance of debit cards; exclusive, remote bank channels for pensioners Old-age pension applications are 100 per cent online Costa Rica, Social Insurance Fund
Health care services, records not easily accessible; results of health visits take time to codify and not readily accessible Mobile apps EDUS and SIFF móvil give access to health care services, records; easy encoding of home visit data; better case management Ecuador, Ecuadorian Social Security Institute
Wholly or partially presence-based procedures in customer service centres Unlimited access to online services; optimal processing time for employers and employees; no need for in-person visits Mexico, Mexican Social Security Institute
My digital pension
Up to four in-person visits to complete claim application; paper-driven processes; 1 in 5 applications with errors, require re-processing No more than one in-person visit to sign application; digitization of documents; interoperable processes speed up benefit payments Mexico, State Employees’ Social Security and Social Services Institute
Electronic personal loan allocation system
Paper-based loan applications controlled by trade unions and federal departments; prone to error and bias Electronic submission of applications; loans are electronically allocated at random to workers and pensioners alike Panama, Social Insurance Fund
Advanced technologies for the automation of processes
Presence-based services and transactions; paper-based processes Online application and payment of benefits; phone app for basic medical care; chatbot ROVI (Robot Virtual) for FAQs and customer care Peru, Derrama Magisterial
Optimizing the pension management process: Online granting of death benefits
Presence-based services and transactions; paper-based processes Digitization of documents; death benefits are now granted online; access to services through virtual channels Peru, EsSalud – Social Health Insurance Institute
Virtual integrated platform for insured persons (VIVA)
Presence-based services and transaction; paper-based processes; long waiting time Online platform to submit benefit applications, validate medical certificates, consult client data from the safety of home
Rapid, flexible digital solutions in times of crisis. Governments that did not have the means to distribute COVID-19 emergency assistance to unemployed persons and vulnerable groups turned to the infrastructure of social security institutions to reach out to the population, especially those groups hard hit by the pandemic. The experience of a number of member institutions clearly shows that in the face of adversity, human ingenuity powered by digital technology can, in record time, develop and deploy immediate solutions to the needs of the public. For these institutions, the pandemic accelerated the human-and-digital journey (Table B).
Table B. Rapid deployment of solutions based on human ingenuity and digital technology Previously Now Anguilla, Social Security Board
Unemployment/Under-employment Assistance Benefit (UAB) COVID-19
No programme to pay persons who become unemployed; in-person, paper-based processes Temporary unemployment assistance; web-based platform to file applications and online payment to bank accounts of claimants Bahamas, National Insurance Board
Shocks and extreme events: COVID-19 crisis
Digital agenda was supposed to be phased over a two-year period Digital solutions developed within one month; digital platform for government-funded unemployment assistance for self-employed Grenada, National Insurance Board
Implementation of unemployment benefit
No programme to pay persons who become unemployed; paper-based claims and notification system; electronic fund transfer a payment option Temporary unemployment assistance; online submission of claims; email notices; electronic fund transfer service expanded Guatemala, Social Security Institute
Response to the COVID-19: Flexibility measures to protect pensioners
Presence-based verification of proof of life and entitlement to invalidity pension Proof of life using biometric systems, video-conferencing; deferment of pre-requisites for continuance of invalidity pension Paraguay, Social Insurance Institute
Benefits for persons with suspended employment contracts
No programme to pay persons who become unemployed; government Ministry pays benefits to insured persons on furlough Online link to the Ministry’s database for ID verification; interface with Bancard to directly channel payments to payroll accounts
- Integrated approach of human-and-digital framework. Mapping workflows, developing a service taxonomy, and creating repositories for centralized processes are among the critical steps to developing an institution’s human-and digital framework. The transformation fundamentally changes the service architecture into an integrated suite of various modules that implement key functions. As the institution gains dexterity in the modular approach, it becomes systematically easier to extend and expand the framework to automate other business processes and services.
Brazil’s online platform Meu INSS, for example, gives public access to more than 90 types of services. It is supported by at least seven integrated modules consisting of a programming system; a task manager system; a communication layer with the public; an authentication platform; an in-person service module; an integrating module to manage all other modules; and a module that aggregates service data, processes and profile configurations (Table C).
The Social Insurance Bank of Uruguay is among the pioneers in the human-and-digital approach. It recently created RENOA, a procedure to automate a benefit programme for minors, adolescents and incapacitated adults. Previously, the programme depended on the manual transmission of judicial instructions that authorized employers to deduct automatically from the salaries of parents the programme contributions. Another mobile application recently developed allows its auditors to access the institution’s database while on field duty, to verify the registration of companies and workers (Table C).
Table C. Digital transformation and modular approach Previously Now Brazil, National Social Security Institute In-person visits to access services; paper-based processes
Manual procedures, backlogs and delays; working in silos; isolated decision-making; processes highly dependent on human intervention
Online platform to submit claims, receive benefits, remotely authenticate documents plus over 90 other services
Automated processing of benefits; integrated platform validated by different sources feeds information to systems to automate claims payment
Uruguay, Social Insurance Bank Non-payment of support for minors and incapacitated adults; manual transmission of judicial instructions to authorize salary deductions
Difficulty for auditors on inspection duty to verify registration information of companies and workers
Automatic transmission to employers of jury decision to automatically deduct from parents’ salaries; automatic monitoring of compliance
Mobile application for auditors on inspection duty access to database to verify registration of company and workers
- Staff productivity and human propensity to innovate. Freed from routine procedures, the institution’s workforce is pivoting towards strategic areas that capitalize on human skills and proficiencies in leadership, problem analyses, ideation and creation.
In Brazil, the end-to-end automation of benefits enabled the National Social Security Institute to re-think and re-design the management of work routines, which are now based on productivity goals. The digital approach led to standardized work routines that increased staff productivity.
The Acceleration Hub of the Employment and Social Development Canada enables in-person and virtual collaboration on client-centred service solutions. Using an immersive design-thinking process, it fosters a collaborative-by-default approach to innovate ways of doing things (Table D).
Table D. Staff productivity and the human-and-digital framework Previously Now Brazil, National Social Security Institute
Service Gate: Revolutionizing the work of the INSS
Staff productivity held down by paper-driven processes; non-integrated traditional and rigid systems Standardized work routines by digital approach increased productivity; programmes now based on individual staff work Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada
Service transformation: Design-thinking and the Acceleration Hub
Ad-hoc service innovations with a single operational view and no input from clients or service partners Acceleration Hub a new structure for clients, experts and professionals to collaborate, ideate and iterate client-centric services
The human-and-digital framework is a game-changer in social security administration. The efficiency, flexibility and resilience that it brings is nothing short of revolutionary. From the institutions’ strategic perspective, innovating the delivery of benefits is a perennial goal for every social security institution because the quality of the experience is a key barometer of public opinion, not just for the institution but also for the national government.
As the world works its way out of the pandemic and into a future of new normalities, the direction is clear for social security administrators: human and digital by default.
The rich experience emerging from the good practices of ISSA members institutions in the Americas delivers a number of valuable insights, foremost of which are the following:
- Transitioning to a human-and-digital service framework requires a whole-of-institution approach. The board and management must ensure its hand-in-glove fit with the overall vision and strategic plan of the institution.
- The framework requires a change in the mind-set of management, from the traditional view that humans are simply parts of an assembly line process that delivers social security to a recognition that the mother lode of genius and innovation rests in the human proficiencies for leadership, ideation, collaboration and co-creation.
- Artificial intelligence and digital technologies have the capacity to automate decisions. Nonetheless, automated decisions still require human oversight. This is a principle that guides the human-and-digital framework that is transforming the region’s social security services.