Recently I had the privilege of spending a week in Barbados working with ten social security organisations from across the Caribbean to workshop the International Social Security Association’s Service Quality Guidelines (ISSA, 2013).
Amongst the idyllic surroundings of the Caribbean, four common issues came up. Each are public value challenges:
- Reinforcing the purpose of social security in society – solidarity and insurance rather than simple entitlements and transfer payments
- Addressing contribution compliance with employers – financing the system
- The gap in knowledge and mutual understanding between business and IT departments
- Staff skills and commitment to the purpose of social security
While the nations of the Caribbean are small and their social security systems are still developing in terms of coverage and financing, I found these issues surprisingly similar to even the largest of countries and social security organisations around the world. These are all issues that require new approaches. Leveraging the public value principles of digital government may provide some direction to what are deeply complex issues for the long-term viability of social security.
At the heart of these issues is the growing trust deficit between governments and the citizens they serve. The trust deficit, fueled by the disillusionment and broken promises which arose during the global financial crisis, manifests itself in the social security system through falling participation levels. As citizens, employers, social security staff, and the public at large lose faith in the promises of government to provide adequate social insurance protection against social risks, they begin to retreat and withdraw from participating in the system.
These four challenges to public value are interrelated through this common theme of trust. As confidence in social security falls, either through a lack of understanding or falling levels of trust in government, employers and employees start to avoid making contributions. Citizens also ask why they should contribute to a social fund when they no longer feel confident the fund will be sufficiently financed to payout benefits when they need them, and staff become disillusioned as they face people in crisis within a failing social security system.
On top of this, while IT is essential to the efficient and effective delivery of social security, it comes with levels of complexity and requires a close working relationship between IT professionals and business people. Yet in the second decade of the 21st century, we still hear the complaint of the gap between the business and the IT Department. Social security is inherently complex because it reflects the changing social ideals and goals of society.
While there are many similarities in terms of business processes with other industries, many business and IT professionals still fail to understand the material differences that make a social security organisation unique. The complex business environment is a function of the human factors of participation within the social security system, which make it a dynamic and challenging environment for IT and business professionals. Teamwork and collaboration are essential in this environment.
However, this is compromised when the purpose of social security is not well understood by staff and trust in the system is falling. It is not surprising that there are issues as organisations use IT to automate business processes and support the efficient and effective delivery of the system.
Trust takes time to build and can be lost in an instant. It takes time to regain the trust of parties who feel as if they have been let down by the system. A commitment to service quality is key step in addressing the trust deficit. Confidence in the system and how it is administered is essential to ensuring people continue to support the system that supports them, now and into the future (Pieters, 2000). Investing in service quality is an investment in building trust and confidence, which in turn contributes to more stable and viable societies. If service quality by the social security organisation is not a priority, then how can people be expected to understand and support the system?
To be a quality service organisation in today’s business environment requires investment in digital technology. Service quality in social security will continue to improve in line with rising citizen expectations and community standards, influenced by the developments in the commercial sector. The digital revolution combined with widespread availability of mobile connectivity through smartphones will continue to provide the platform for the technological inventions to drive the innovation required to meet this demand (Lee-Archer, 2013).