Voices from Accenture Public Service

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“Cheshire Puss, would you tell me, please,
which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

In the sequel to Lewis Carroll’s classic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” curious Alice climbs through a looking-glass into a world beyond. In this alternate world, things are not as they seem, and she must look beyond what is in front of her to understand the disruption occurring around her.

For social protection administrators, it can feel like the traditional ways of doing things are being turned upside-down. Organisations look to their counterparts across the world for inspiration in managing and reacting to digital disruption. Innovation is aplenty, but often these initiatives are not replicable within other social protection organisations. It should not be a surprise that a lift and shift approach will not work. However, like Alice, looking deeper into the mirror can reveal valuable lessons to be learned.

I am regularly asked by senior executives in social protection organisations “who else out there is experiencing this disruption and what can we learn from them?” When it comes to new technology such as artificial intelligence, the question is “who has done this before?” These are reasonable questions, as executives seek to mitigate the political risks of failure with evidence of the success of new technology adoption in similar situations.

Social protection organisations walk the political tightrope of delivering essential services, while simultaneously seeking to leverage new technology to improve the effectiveness of social program design and delivery, and the productivity of internal operations. Failure can have catastrophic consequences for individuals, organisations and even governments. This fear of failure makes social protection organisations conservative when it comes to adopting new technology.

The good news is the social protection industry has a long history of sharing experiences and knowledge across international borders through multi-lateral forums. There is no competition between countries and states when it comes to social protection and so openness and sharing are hallmarks of the sector. The bad news is the frustration from attempts to find comparable organisations with the same approach to social protection, who are experiencing the same challenges and rate of change.

There is a material feature of social protection that makes it stand out from other sectors: the social protection system in a country reflects the culture and social norms that lie at the heart and identity of the nation-state. The priorities a government applies in addressing social risk and disadvantage reflects the values of the society they represent.

If there is no-one out there like you, how can you learn from others? The first step is to stop looking for “like-for-like” and acknowledge the diversity of the social protection industry. Second, seek out inspiration and new ideas in places where you may not normally look. It requires effort to understand the social protection philosophy and the social norms and culture of another country but when you do, the case studies and good practice can be placed in context. It may not be possible to replicate one organisations’ innovation, but principles can be adapted for your own situation.

The digital government experience of Estonia is a case in point. Estonia is regularly promoted as a standout example of digital government, which it rightfully deserves. But it is easy to dismiss the lessons from countries like Estonia because “it’s just not like us” due to its small size, greenfield technology environment and political history.

As we move towards the era of empowerment through digitalisation across the social protection ecosystem, examples of innovation can be found all over the world. Rather than looking for organisations of similar scale and complexity with a complementary approach to social policy, look beyond the technology and seek out organisations addressing the hard business issues such as public trust, ethics, data privacy and the future of work.

Countries like Estonia stand-out because they explore beyond the looking-glass for inspiration and rather than copy, they are creating the alternate digital world to enable better social protection outcomes.

If you want to know more about how we could help your organisation move to the alternate world of social protection in the digital age, visit us at Accenture.com or contact me directly.

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