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Writing the law with code

Elina Kuljus, Nortal's Senior System Analyst, and Pirjo Künnapuu from ESIB, juni 29, 2020

On occasion, the creators of a technical solution can significantly influence the acts of law their work is meant to carry out.

When Nortal and Estonia’s Social Insurance Board (ESIB) began work on a proactive service that would help the parents of children with special needs during the COVID-19 crisis, there was no law or legal act to order this new benefit. There were just an idea and a brief memo. Three weeks later, though, a working technical solution, a legal action, and the first offer for named benefits accepted were a reality.

For the analysts, the satisfying part was that a lot of the input for the legal action, which eventually landed on the desks of the minister of social affairs and the president of Estonia to be signed, came from the solution’s development team. They were allowed to do so according to their understanding of what would make the solution work best.

Rethinking the system

The essential thing proposed for the bill was labeling the new benefit as a service the state offers its citizens, not something citizens ask for from the state. The usual logic behind benefits management is that first someone applies for a benefit. Then the state checks if the applicant matches the necessary criteria and is entitled to the benefit. Based on that information, the state decides to grant or deny the application for the benefit based on a concrete administrative act. Then the benefit can be paid out or the declining decision sent to the applicant. A lot of work goes into declining the right to benefits and informing the applicant of this decision. Also, given the situation, there would not have been enough time to evaluate each application separately.

With proactive services, there is no application, and the dynamic offer only targets those entitled to the benefit and matching all the right criteria. Therefore, it lightens the workload considerably by changing the evaluation process and, no less importantly, eliminating the act of declining.

To speed things up, citizens’ data were imported from various registries where it had previously been verified. That created a list of persons eligible for the unique benefit and the sums they were entitled to. Mere weeks later, approximately 13,000 offers for that benefit were sent out.

The team behind the solution also proposed the budget projections, best ways of delivering the actual benefit (preferring bank transfers due to the pandemic), and the clearest phrasings for the legal act (to avoid any confusion about who the benefit is for and on which terms).

The important thing is not to go into too many details in the lawmaking. For example, with family benefits, the law only states, “to be paid until the child turns 19 in case still attending school.” But behind this simple line, there are 40 pages of regulations.

Making things even easier

A notable perk of this solution was adding an option to notify employers of unpaid leave, as a parent was only entitled to this benefit if they were taking time off work to care for their child. Thereby, there was no need for the parent to fill in a separate application for unpaid leave; they only need tick a box in the self-service portal. About 30 percent of people used this option, and their employers found this easy to comprehend and execute.

The new benefit also broke a self-service record shortly after the proposals were sent out. The Social Insurance Board’s relatively new self-service portal (that has been live for six months) was visited 300 times more than usual during one day. Such an increase in volume was handled gracefully, but what was more surprising was that after sending out the offers, even though the clock was approaching midnight, two minutes later, the first offers were already confirmed by parents.

This crisis has made people of all ages more open to using online services. But reliable solutions are also about knowing your customers — both the citizens who will benefit from them and the civil servants whose work is made easier through technological innovations. When the knowledge of the customer and the technology come together, making suggestions to lawmakers is duly justified.

This article is based on a webinar that took place during a meet-up series called Analysis Disruption. You can read more about the event from HERE and watch the recording of the talk from HERE (both in Estonian).