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Technology has been instrumental in improving services, including remote counselling, individual support, case management and the collection, analysis and use of data to maximise the effectiveness of social interventions. However, there are also considerations regarding the use of personal data, particularly when it comes to sharing data between services and compliance with data legislation. During this year's European Social Services Conference, these concerns were highlighted at a roundtable  organised with European Social Network’s (ESN) industry partners IBM, Accenture, Edenred and SAP Institute for Digital Government, who presented specific examples of their solutions that helped support social services during the pandemic.

Covid-19 and technological challenges

The obvious yet often overlooked problem faced by social services during the pandemic was the surge in public interest in online content available on their websites. This was caused by an increase in the number of social services beneficiaries, but also by the restrictions introduced on face-to-face consultations. The consequences were server overload and problems with software not being adapted to the new requirements for quantity and quality of published content.

An increase in the number and variety of services delivered electronically, with the introduction of entirely new types of support designed to contribute to the recovery from the pandemic, forced further innovations. Meanwhile, increasing emphasis on integration of services - health, social care, and education – is leading to a need for interoperability between systems and ease of acquiring comprehensive data on the needs of beneficiaries. To respond to these challenges and prepare for future crises, investment in new, dedicated and flexible digital tools is inevitable.

Digital solutions for social services

To address these issues, ESN’s partners presented products they developed collaboratively with regional and national authorities that addressed the most pressing needs of citizens. Edina Sewell, representing the SAP Institute for Digital Government shared her experiences of cooperation with public authorities to develop digital platforms for information on where to get meals for children whose schools had been closed or how to apply for financial supports.

Nathalie Renaudin, Public Affairs Director at Edenred, focused on the role of  social e-vouchers. She explained that social vouchers represent a viable alternative to cash and can prevent administrative complications usually associated with the implementation of in-kind support. Their usefulness was proven in an unprecedented way by the pandemic, she said. “The programme is aimed at vulnerable populations, including older people.  As these populations are not always the most connected ones, we must ensure that our technology is truly accessible for them” – added Ms Renaudin. .

For digitally delivered services to be effective and truly support beneficiaries, they must be based on comprehensive needs research and testing with the target audience. This was the point made by David Nelson, Executive Director, Global Strategy and Market Development at IBM Watson Health. He described the company's partnerships with the government of Canada and the state government of North Carolina in the US and showed how well-designed digital platforms attract users and ease the burden for on-site staff in public services.

Mark Lyons, Head of Public Service practice for Europe at Accenture, indicated that delivering services digitally often involves turning over a significant amount of funds and this requires that authorities ensure their software is completely stable and fraud-proof. At the same time, he added, companies providing virtual solutions need to make sure that their tools are not only secure but also user-friendly, especially for older people who find it particularly challenging to navigate the digital world. “While a service might be contactless, it still needs to have a human touch associated with it” – Mr Lyons stressed.

Bright future

The process of digitalisation of public administration, including social services, has been going on for years. It seems that the pandemic has given these efforts a necessary boost, showing that social services can quickly and effectively implement solutions to continue to provide quality services using virtual tools. The hope is to convert the experience gained during the pandemic into sustainable solutions. The solutions presented by ESN’s partners can be a great source of inspiration for all those working in social services and fill them with confidence that the digital transition is fully within their reach as long as it is accompanied by appropriate investments.