A Duty Of Care In The Digital Government Era

Brian Lee-Archer

panama-street-1024x768There is a longstanding principle of individual ministerial accountability within governments that follow the Westminster System. The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled on the United Kingdom, where the minister bears the accountability for the actions of their ministry or department even if they have had no direct involvement in those actions. While many countries around the world follow different models of democratic government, such as the U.S. and continental Europe, similar principles of responsibility apply to ministerial and/or senior appointed officials for the actions of the responsible government agencies.

This principle of ministerial or senior official responsibility has a significant bearing on the administration of the social protection system. With programs within the social protection system targeted at population cohorts such as the aged, people with disabilities, and the unemployed, the administering agency is responsible for how these programs impact the lives of individuals. The minister or the senior official relies on the competence of the social protection agency to ensure programs are delivered according to the law and within the spirit of the intent of lawmakers; i.e., achievement of desired social outcomes that satisfy individual and collective state needs. Accountable ministers and senior officials rely on the exercising of a duty of care to individuals by the responsible administrators. Administrators have a duty to ensure that all people within a social program cohort are treated fairly and equitably within the law, with legally supported recourse when things go wrong.

As the administration of the social protection system moves deeper into the digital world, there are new issues to consider with exercising this duty of care. At the World Social Security Forum to be held 14-18 November in Panama City, I am speaking on the subject of service quality innovation. I will be highlighting the rapidly advancing trend towards empowering people to self-serve within the social protection system, enabled by mobile platforms.

But this welcome change in the balance of power from the hands of the state to the individual comes with some risk. The good news is this risk is one a digital government can address by leveraging its data assets. As social protection agencies transform their service delivery models in line with digital government mandates by empowering people to self-serve, they potentially put at risk some of the very people they are there to serve.

Social protection by definition is serving people who can be experiencing various forms of social disadvantage throughout their lives. Empowering people through access to knowledge, information, and services via channels that are simple and convenient are all part of the multi-pronged approach to addressing social disadvantage undertaken by enlightened social protection agencies.

The ubiquitous spread of mobile platforms and smartphones around the world, both in developed and developing nations, is providing significant new capabilities to address social disadvantage. But in an environment where a social protection agency may no longer need to have any (or regular) personal or face-to-face contact with an individual, how does the agency exercise its duty of care to ensure people are not experiencing any additional or new vulnerabilities?

To illustrate this point, suppose an unemployed person is fulfilling their compliance obligations with their social protection agency via a mobile platform. As time goes on and they meet their statutory obligations through the digital platform, they become detached from the labour market as they become disillusioned at not finding a job, leading to an increased risk of long-term unemployment. When and how there should be interventions, including perhaps an old-fashioned non-digital approach such as an office-based interview, to keep the person engaged?

As more social protection servicing goes online, it is expected that administrators will apply the duty of care principle by looking out for people left behind; i.e., addressing the digital divide. However, they need to also look out for people operating exclusively in the digital world, who may appear to be capable of self-managing but who are vulnerable to social disadvantage.

So what can social protection administrators do? The banking sector provides a clue. A major issue for retail banks is churn—i.e., people switching banks and the bank not realising it until it is too late to do anything about it. By analyzing online transaction behaviour of people who have churned, they can identify patterns to predict the likelihood of customers becoming a churn statistic. And what is one of the leading indicators? Perhaps not surprisingly, a marked drop-off in online transactions with significant periods of no activity leading up to the decision to switch banks.

The lesson for social protection administrators is to be on the lookout for people whose transaction behaviour starts to change, and in particular those people who start to fade away, as this might be an indicator of a new and emerging vulnerability to social disadvantage; e.g., an unemployed person giving up on looking for a job.

More importantly, undertake the research and start analysing your data to identify the indicators of potential vulnerability for people self-managing within the digital world. Your accountable minister or senior official will be grateful for this practical digital government response to exercising the state’s duty of care to its vulnerable citizens in the digital world.

To find out more about the SAP Institute for Digital Government visit www.sap.com/sidg, follow us on Twitter @sapsidg or email us at digitalgovernment@sap.com.

The photo in this blog is a street scene, taken November 13, in San Felipe Panama City. Panama City is the host city for the World Social Security Forum.


Brian Lee-Archer

About Brian Lee-Archer

Brian Lee-Archer is director of the SAP Institute for Digital Government Global (SIDG). Launched in 2015, SIDG is a global think tank that aims to create value for government by leveraging digital capability to meet the needs of citizens and consumers of government services. In collaboration with government agencies, universities and partner organizations, SIDG facilitates innovation through digital technology for deeper policy insight and improved service delivery.