Andres Aavik: New benefits to take Social Insurance Board back to Stone Age

Andres Aavik.
Andres Aavik. Source: Flowit

Amendments to the Family Benefits Act passed in the Riigikogu last week constitute another IT blunder courtesy of politicians. Estonia is set to spend €1.2 million on hiring close to 20 people who will have to process the data necessary for new benefits to reach large families by hand, Andres Aavik writes.

This is no isolated incident, instead constituting long-time technological blindness on the part of politicians. Piling election promises on top of election promises, politicians fail to consider the fact that new benefits and pension annexes require a series of developments and changes in state IT infrastructure that take time and money. The result is that the Social Insurance Board (SKA) and the Health and Welfare Information Systems Center (TEHIK) are constantly putting out fires politicians have started, paying out benefits by hand, instead of developing and improving user-friendly IT systems. This is stagnation in e-Estonia.

The Social Insurance Board is under constant political pressure. Instead of modernizing public information systems, its resources are put in the service of politicians in their entirety.

The Riigikogu passed amendments to the Family Benefits Act on December 7, with the first payments according to the new scheme due in under a month's time! A situation that is nothing short of absurd! Numerous major IT developments are in order for the social insurance IT system to calculate the new benefits correctly, which will take at least a year. For example, the system needs to be taught new rules so it knows to consider the gradual reduction in benefit sums as consecutive children turn 19. And the development cannot start before the law has been proclaimed.

A year's development required

Talking to SKA employees, one learns that the work will take 12 months unless other developments are added to the pile. However, the agency will not be allowed to work in peace. The SKA's to-do list for this year consists of 14 major developments to which six additional developments were added to help mitigate the technological backlog of the social protection system. Another three extraordinary developments were added concerning the previous government's two benefits and the implementation of four new benefits ordered by the current coalition. This shows that the agency is constantly forced to put out fires. Until the developments are finished, data will have to be entered and benefits paid out partly by hand. There are more than a few instruments today where manual work is required by officials.

There is only a handful of specialists who know the new SKAIS2 information system and all are busy putting out such fires. The IT system is highly complicated, and it takes even an experienced software engineer months to get to know its mechanisms. Companies that developed the system as part of a public tender until now have planned their work inside the framework agreement.

While a public procurement to find a new developer is underway and has even seen bids entered, this will cause a work disruption stretching into months. Even if the new developer had the right people on hand, legal technicalities, contracts and settling in will take up to six months. Only then could we expect the first functional pieces but not developments requiring major change.

Social protection IT system nearing end of life

The social protection information system itself is a much bigger problem still as it has not been modernized to a sufficient degree, next to politicians' urgent projects. The system furthermore includes technologically outdated solutions.

The SKAIS2 system that has been in development for seven years has never worked properly, while it is nearing the end of its life cycle. It is among the most complicated and expensive IT systems in Estonia on which €14 million has been spent so far and another €8 million will be spent with the recent tender.

At the same time, investments necessary for extending the software's life cycle have not been made as new political decisions take precedence. This causes technological arrears to mount that is in turn making it increasingly expensive and difficult to translate amendments into the system. SKA employees have admitted that development of the system itself has been neglected. Someone has likely been convinced that because the system is still in development and has not been fully adopted, typical life cycle investments are not required and the system is somehow perpetual. This conviction is mistaken.

My prediction is that Estonia will be forced to write the entire hugely expensive SKAIS2 system off in three years' time due to the aforementioned systemic problems. Its replacement should be built from scratch and planning launched as quickly as possible. If only because a piece of software tends to have a lifespan of 8-15 years. SKAIS2 is seven years old and includes outdated base technologies by today.

SKAIS2 is basically a failed project. Going after one major system to cover virtually all aspects of social protection was a mistake in the first place. It is very difficult to design a system that should be able to facilitate any idea and desire over the next ten years.

The future SKAIS3 should not be a giant monolithic piece of software. The new solution should sport a modular architecture to which new modules can be attached, complemented, updated and replaced faster. Its focus should be on data and integrations.

In addition to planning the SKAIS2 replacement, the Social Insurance Board should fight to make sure every new development would not deepen the technological stagnation of the entire information system. Politicians should consider the time and money it takes to implement new benefits and pensions. Right now, Estonia is set to waste €1.2 million in taxpayer funds on votes for parties from large families come Riigikogu elections in spring.

Every new law passed by the Riigikogu should come with assurances that we will not have to hire people to do manual work in order to implement it. It is insensible to burn money in this fashion. Those €1.2 should be invested in technology to render administration more effective. The goal should be a thinner and smarter state, not a return to the era of doing things by hand and using Excel spreadsheets.

In order to achieve faster and cheaper developments in the future, Estonia could have invested those €1.2 million in the SKAIS3 architecture and have the first services run on the new prototype instead of SKAIS1 and SKAIS2.

Flowit Estonia is not an SKA partner and is not involved in developing social protection information system.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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