COVID-19 has created a new era. What does this mean for social service agencies?

If there is one word that sums up the situation we all live with today, it’s uncertainty. No one can tell how long it will be before a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 is available. The economic impacts are hard to predict, but seem likely to exact a significant toll on employment and growth in the months and perhaps years ahead.

Social services are on the frontline of dealing with those impacts, and “doing more with less” has never seemed a more relevant mantra than it is today. The impact of COVID-19 has stretched resources, strained capacity and required whole new programs of support expressly designed to alleviate the economic consequences of the pandemic for millions of people.

At the same time, social services agencies have faced the same challenges as everybody else. Where possible, they’ve had to move teams to new virtual working arrangements. Staffing levels have been affected by employees being ill themselves or having to care for family members. Demand has soared at the same time that capacity has shrunk.

And what we’ve seen around the world is a clear delineation between those agencies that were best able to manage and outmanoeuvre uncertainty and those that have struggled. Put bluntly, agencies that had already achieved relative maturity in terms of digital ways of working and services found it much easier to support sudden increases in demand along with essential new ways to deliver no or low-touch services. Others that had not previously travelled as far on their digital journeys have had to rely on reallocating people within their organisations to address capacity constraints or hiring in extra help from the private sector in order to cope.

One clear lesson from this? Shifting to digital channels for service delivery is no longer an option to be considered. It’s become mission critical. As uncertainty persists, agencies will have to rethink how they will deliver services in the future, and how they will collaborate with others to meet the new and fast-changing needs of citizens facing the fallout from COVID-19.

Safety is, of course, a priority. Making sure that workers can carry out their roles in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines and protected from the risk of infection has meant a decisive shift to virtual working. That requires new technology so that employees can access tools and information safely, new ways to communicate and even new contracts that provide for work from home models.

Just as dramatic are the changes needed to deliver services. While face-to-face channels won’t completely disappear, the emphasis from now on has to be on digital-first. Where possible, interactions with citizens should be virtual. Of course, that raises challenges about security and privacy. Citizens may not, after all, want government agencies to have unfettered visibility of everything going on in their home. Access to digital tools and skills also has to be addressed, as many of the most vulnerable members of society won’t necessarily have access to a smartphone, tablet or PC or possess the know how that they need to engage virtually.

Balancing safety, equity and effectiveness is far from straightforward. In my next blog, I’m going to look in more detail about some of the ways that agencies can go about meeting those three imperatives. In the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear about the challenges that your agency is facing and how you are addressing them in order to outmanoeuvre uncertainty.

Rainer Binder

Global Social Services Lead

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