Coronavirus and the opportunity for the digital transformation of social services

Coronavirus and the opportunity for the digital transformation of social services

The coronavirus crisis has pushed social enterprises to seek digital alternatives to their processes and intervention models. As we leave the emergency phase, it would be wasteful not to take advantage of this momentum to accelerate digital transformation within these organizations.

The need for social services to join the digital revolution precedes the coronavirus pandemic. From where we stand, progress has been slow and polarized. The landscape of social enterprises in Portugal includes a few, usually new, organizations whose impact models are inherently digital. Yet, most social enterprises have adopted digital tools gradually, incompletely, and non-strategically. The social enterprises that had been postponing digital transition were caught off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic, with limited ability to move into remote work and service delivery.

This crisis has:

  • Reminded us of the importance of social services. The role of health and social protection services has been unquestionable. A successful recovery will also heavily rely on social services related to employment, education and justice.
  • Shone a light on how vulnerable these services are when faced with movement restrictions. Corona has exposed the gaps in the digitalization of administrative processes and is testing our assumptions about how social services are delivered.

Let us look at the digitalization of social services in two ways: back office and front office.

Back office: digitalising the work that does not face the social service beneficiaries

At its most fundamental level, back-office digitalisation includes practices such as keeping documents on the cloud, shared drives and using digital communication tools (email, videoconference, messaging chats, amongst others). The current crisis has made a clear case for digital adoption. It is key to ensure that teams operating remotely can access and share all the relevant information about the people that they are serving.

The security of such tools and interactions is a concern, especially for organizations that hold sensitive information on their beneficiaries. However, organizations that are lagging in digital adoption run the biggest risk of committing cybersecurity faux pas. When employees lack experience operating digital tools safely or there are no standards in place, chaos ensues and urgency overtakes protocols: personal email accounts are used for professional interactions, sensitive documents are shared indiscriminately through different digital channels, and so on. Considerations on data protection and cybersecurity are central to a deliberate digital adoption at the organizational level. They should not be used as an excuse not to do it.

Front office: digitalising social services for beneficiaries

Many social services are hard to transition into the virtual space because there is an inherent value in keeping them offline. We are all being reminded of the power of in-person interactions. Often, digitalization is difficult because the beneficiaries themselves are not digitally literate and cannot operate digital tools. To our great discomfort, the coronavirus crisis is putting these constraints to the test.

We have seen the social enterprises we work with react to the coronavirus crisis in three different ways:

Academia de Código, an organization that runs 14-week coding bootcamps to requalify unemployed code cadets, has seamlessly transitioned its running bootcamps online. For social enterprises that were already at the forefront of the digital revolution, the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to step-up their game and anticipate initiatives that would have otherwise been introduced more gradually.

Projeto Família works with families whose children have been flagged as being at risk, helping them develop parental competences. They run an intensive six-week program, followed by twelve months of regular follow-ups. During the intensive phase, caseworkers of Projeto Família spend twelve hours per week interacting with each family. Under normal circumstances, 80% of those hours happen face-to-face. While the caseworkers of Projeto Família can no longer meet with the families in person (except in very critical circumstances), they have doubled the time spent checking in with the families via phone calls, making their best to prevent the escalation of conflict in the household. This crisis is pushing organizations like these to coordinate their use of digital tools, try new channels, and tweak intervention models. For these social enterprises, the current crisis will yield important learnings for service delivery beyond the end of the pandemic.

Finally, some social enterprises are struggling to keep even an adjusted version of their services running. Non-essential services for elderly people, for example, face particularly challenging circumstances. These beneficiaries are disproportionately susceptible to the coronavirus and are, on average, less able to access and use digital services. With the possibility of some restrictions staying in place (or being re-imposed) in the months to come, simply postponing the interventions becomes an insufficient response. For this segment of social enterprises, this is an opportunity to seriously rethink their intervention models.

Organizations that provide mental health support to elderly people or that coordinate physical activity groups are being forced to answer difficult questions: perhaps a component of the service can be made remote; perhaps we are underestimating the beneficiaries’ ability to learn how to use digital tools; perhaps the back-office of these organizations can be made leaner through digital tools, so that they can afford to cut intervention group size from 10 people to 5 people (doubling staff costs on intervention delivery), making sure that group meetings allow for the appropriate physical distance.

In some cases, it might not be possible to sustain the same quality of service through digital-only components. However, this crisis will force organizations to try. Some of them might be surprised by the results.

Not all social enterprises are equally equipped to take advantage of digital opportunities. Our job is to ensure that those left behind get the assistance that they need.

The digital transformation that social enterprises go through in the next months will pay double in the future. It will make them more resilient and fitter for adaptation in future crises. More importantly, it will allow them to streamline processes and save energy, empathy, and time for the human interactions that are worth fighting for.

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