National Audit Office: Collection of welfare information not well organized

National Audit Office logo.
National Audit Office logo. Source: National Audit Office

An audit of the National Audit Office has revealed that the collection of information in the course of local governments' social work and the administration and use of such information is not well organized and instead results in an excessive burden and the collected information not being used in the best way possible, spokespeople for the National Audit Office told BNS on Thursday.

The problem arises largely due to the state-developed STAR information system, which still has not begun working as intended a decade after its establishment.

When applying for social services and benefits, people are often asked to provide information that the local government could retrieve itself from the state's or its own databases, or information that doesn't hold much importance in the context of proceedings. The application forms of the audited governments — Tallinn, Pärnu and Jõhvi — included such data fields to the extent of approximately 20 percent.

The main reasons given for this by local governments are gaps and faults in the national social services and benefits data register (STAR), which the state has tried for years to implement as a social work tool for local governments. STAR obviously has to be fixed, but there are other options for retrieving information from the state's databases that can be used in the meantime. Contacting a person is only justified if all other reasonable means of collecting the data have been exhausted first.

Local governments' practices also differed, and there were examples of cases in which results were achieved without burdening people too much. For example, someone applying for subsistence benefits was faced with a form including 50 fields in Pärnu; the form used in Tallinn's Lasnamäe District, meanwhile, included just 17 fields.

The high number of different application forms is also a burden, as finding the correct one may not be easy. Few "universal" application forms exist, with which applicants could express their needs for several services and benefits at once.

Current services not fitting for e-state

Options for using e-channels to sort out welfare-related matters with local benefits are also poor. For example, obtaining the application form for a service or benefit online was often impossible, let alone filling it out and submitting it electronically. Services fitting of an e-state, which are partly or fully automated, tend to be exceptions in welfare organized by local governments.

The audit also revealed that the information collected from people is often duplicated, and that the same information is often held in several places (including paper files and information systems). Information with different content is also not kept in the same place. For instance, there are applications on file on paper, responses to information requests in STAR, and some calculations in Excel files.

Although a great deal of information is collected, it can be said that its value is largely unrealized: no in-depth analyses for identification of risks, assessments of the impact of measures and their correction are carried out. This is due in part to the abundance of paper in information management as well as the poor quality of the information entered in information systems.

The STAR information system developed by the state has not developed into a tool that supports local governments, the National Audit Office found. The system is necessary in principle, but STAR's frequent technical problems and issues in its operating logic have generated a lot of unreasonable work. The Ministry of Social Affairs has not managed to decisively solve these problems in the last ten years.

These issues with STAR in turn amplify many of the other aforementioned problems, such as people's burden in the submission of data and duplication of information. Things started moving in the right direction after STAR was delivered to the Social Insurance Board, but it still remains unclear whether and when local governments will find a solution to the issues raised.

The submission of data to the state is also a considerable burden for local governments. Data must regularly be entered into the STAR system and statistical reports submitted on an annual basis. Statistical reporting — 11 different reports in all — is a particularly large burden, and collecting the data needed for it may take days. Local governments themselves often don't use this data in this format either.

The National Audit Office also found that the burden of statistical reporting is not in reasonable balance with the actual need for the data. The examples of data use provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs do not convince the audit office that all of the data is consistently needed in as much detail as currently collected; it is often used just once, and loosely connected with the objective of collection.

The audit office made recommendations for local governments, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Social Insurance Board for solving the problems highlighted by the audit.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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