By Francesco Mureddu, director at the Lisbon Council, a leading Brussels-based think tank and partner of the Co-VAL project.
Several European Member States have implemented a wide array of human centric public services focused on financially supporting citizens during the lockdown. In particular, Hungary, Greece, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark have implemented a set of digital service aimed at mitigating the impact of the lockdown on citizens and businesses. The services seemed rather successful, and two countries seem to have been more successful than the others in the implementation: Germany and Denmark. Regarding Germany, it has implemented a set of financial transfers accessible by filling a simple application form online including supporting material using an API. The services were set up overnight and were met with satisfaction of citizens, which received their money almost immediately, and lack of criticism in the media. Regarding Denmark, the most important service is the compensation scheme to companies, as it assumes that the state, under certain conditions, intervenes and covers the fixed expenses. The application for the financial support was very easy (through the Danish Business Authority website) and the services seems to be generous. The Danish case is also very interesting because it seems to be the only case in which the service was co-created and user-centric design approaches were used. Due to the very short time between the political decision and the implementation, almost no service was not co-created nor user-centric design approaches were used. At first sight, co-creation methods were not prominent in the reaction to the pandemic crisis. It was a time of emergency. When setting up financial help for citizens, there was no time to run focus group and develop prototypes. There was no time for iteration or fancy human-computer interaction interface design. Things had to be implemented fast and work. When looking at online services set up during the emergency, there is no trace of involving users in their design. And this was even more prominent at policy level: it was the time of emergency, top-down lockdowns, not the time for citizens engagement and deliberation. But looking more in-depth at what happened, the picture changes. The services that were more effective in helping citizens were those where the building blocks of the services included co-creation as a fundamental part of the process. They were designed by teams capable to observe and analyse data on how users react; they were set up using very usable and composable building blocks such as eID and base registers; they relied on the close collaboration of different levels of public administration made possible by interoperability. This is what we call the “silent co-creation”: one that is done over time, with users at the centre but without necessarily asking users directly (so-called intrinsic co-creation), and by enabling the dynamic realignment of different components around the needs of users. When we think about co-creation, we tend to think about post-its and prototypes. But as the Co-VAL project findings has repeatedly highlighted, we must consider the full range of co-creation methods. And silent co-creation features are too often widely underestimated.
The importance of effective and human centric public services to help citizens in mitigating the impact of the pandemic crisis is also at the core of the Berlin Declaration on Digital Society, which will be signed by ministers from European Union member states on the 8th of December 2020. To help Member States translate this vision into actions at necessary scale through the use of co-creation practices involving users in public services, the Co-VAL consortium is organizing the Virtual Town Hall Meeting “Human-Centric Digital Government in Practice – An Interactive Debate on the Berlin Declaration on the Digital Society”, which will bring together high-level decision makers and experts to share their experience in applying co-creation techniques to public services and designing policies to support it.
Let’s have now a look at specific examples. Concerning Hungary, the services set up have been the following:
- Monthly state support to private and civil sector employees and their employers;
- Occasional social assistance for those most in need by Municipalities;
- Support for independent artists by the Right Protection Office of Art Performers provide.
The most important seem to be service 1) developed by the National Employment Agency, according to which employees are paid 70% of their lost wage for 3 months and employers can access a wage support loan with 0,1% interest for additional 9 months. There are no data on usage nor effectiveness, although the service does not seem to be very user friendly, as in the application process one Word template should be filled by the employee and submit personally in the local State Office, and another one has to be filled jointly by the employee and the employer and submitted electronically through the central e-gov portal. The service is not co-created, and public comments were submitted only by the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce. Further, the concept and service seem to be rather late, since many employees have already been discharged, and the service was communicated only through media news.
Concerning Greece, the government committed to financially support citizens in the form of vouchers to affected workers and freelancers. It also prohibited lay-offs during the time, and lowered VAT rates in some products. Vouchers were the most supportive measure. More specifically, for workers/employees/freelancers that were affected by the lockdown, the government issued 800 euros vouchers that the beneficiaries could claim by logging in into an online platform to apply. For employees and workers, their employer was the one responsible for registering the beneficiaries to the platform. Other freelancers deemed not to be that affected by the lockdown (e.g. lawyers, accountants) were given educational vouchers, where by completing 100 (online) learning hours in a subject of their choice (related to increasing the digital skills of freelancers), they would get a 600 euros voucher.
Regarding take up, the total number of potential beneficiaries had been calculated to 1.7 million, but during the first 3 of the 10 total days that the platform would operate they had received about 130.000 applications (about 8%), instead of around 400.000 they expected. This deviation was attributed to some dis-function of the platform and the government extended the deadline for a few days. Considering effectiveness, was there were delays due to mistakes done during the application process by employers. Further, while the voucher service is clear and serves its purpose, the distance learning platform created for freelancers was very basic, not very modern, nor user-centric neither well designed in terms of UX concerns. Further, the financial support was not co-created as it was set up pretty quickly (April 1st 2020) by the Greek government as an extension of the Greek online tax portal, Taxis Net, and users logged in with their Taxis Net credentials. The e-learning platform is operated and developed by a private company.
In Belgium in turn the government provides financial support to businesses and entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19. Active businesses that can prove their losses due to the pandemic can receive up to 4,000 euros. Self-employed get what is called a “single premium” from 1,500 to 3,000 euros. From 01 May 2020, the VLAIO – Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen (Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship) has set up an online application in place where citizens can apply for financial compensation. The service is in place from 01 May 2020, and therefore there are no data yet on usage. Further, there is no evidence that the service has been co-created.
As for Italy, there are several services such as a lump sum transfer to autonomous professionals. Specifically, autonomous professionals receive 600 EURO for March, 800 EURO for April and May. The service has been very used, as virtually all 2.5 million individuals entitled applied, while 60% the applicants got the payment. Regarding effectiveness, despite the fact that nor 600 EUR neither 800 EUR is a big amount, the payment has arrived on time. Application in the portal of the National Institute for Social Security (INPS) was very easy, even though the service is not co-created as it was established in a decree, therefore there was not much time to engage stakeholders. Some other interesting services include the ones provided for free by companies.
In the Netherlands there are several financial instruments for single employed enterprises, with a fixed fee of about 4000 EURO. Further, SMEs could ask for help in covering labour costs, even though such measure was not available for all sectors. The most important service is the support to the single employed enterprises, which were partly satisfied, as a large share of them does not have a financial buffer. From what is available in the news the service in terms of procedures was effective, user-centric and well designed. It was not co-created with entrepreneurs but different stakeholders were involved such as branch organisations. Finally, the service was set up rather fast after the outbreak, almost all of parliament was behind the policy.
Taking into account Germany, the services implemented include:
- Emergency financial support for self-employed, artists, companies;
- Short-time allowance;
- Unemployment support;
- Digital concerted recovery action for 40.000 Germans stranded abroad; harvest assistance program;
- #WeVsVirus competition with 45.000 participants and project partners in federal agencies who are now funding the implementation of the projects.
All the financial transfers were accessible by filling a simple application form online including supporting material using an API. The processes existed already, priorities had to be shifted. The digitization of the frontend literally happened over night: people applied Friday and had the money on their bank accounts on Monday. As for take up, the digital services were for sure massively used, even though exact numbers are not reported yet and difficult to assess, because the distribution happens at the state level and it is jointly funded out of federal and state budgets. Further, the services were extremely effective: citizens were satisfied, received their money almost immediately, and there is almost no criticism in the media. However, two states decided to shut the portals down because there were some phishing issues as some citizens were lured to the wrong websites, entered their data, and then their personal data was used on the official portals. Applications could also be submitted offline in citizen office on the local level and those applications have processing priority as well. Due to the very short time between the political decision and the implementation, services were not co-created nor user-centric design approaches were used. In summary, it has to be notices the lack of criticism about the process, the inclusion of stakeholders, the design process, the privacy/security/ethical concerns that usually burden and delay every single digital process in Germany.