Front Office Employment (FOE)

Several measures have been taken in Belgium to stimulate employment. In order to achieve the full efficacy of these measures, employers and job seekers must be aware of those measures which could be of an aid to them as well as the corresponding financial benefits. These measures can be granted through various channels and could take the form of paid benefits, subsidies or a combination of both.

To this end, an integrated information and calculation tool that is also interactive at the same time had to be developed. 

The Front Office Employment project, coordinated by the Crossroads Bank for Social Security (CBSS), is an interactive web application comprised of all measures taken by public authorities, both at federal and community levels. Front Office Employment can also calculate the financial benefits and subsidies from which employers or their potential employees could benefit in a real-life situation. Employers and employees can search in their language via a website, www.aandeslag.be / www.andiearbeit.be / www.autravail.be, using a search engine which helps them to easily find all employment measures and calculate the financial benefit of the various measures.

Based on the responses to a few questions about their situation, the employer or job seeker is provided with an interactive view of all measures which could apply. Furthermore, when the user connects with his/her electronic ID card, some data is automatically extracted from the back office of federal authorities. The employer and job seeker can directly calculate the financial benefit for most of these measures. What’s more, the knowledge and compatibility level management system makes it possible to see which measures can be cumulated and what would be the total benefit of those measures.

Some measures are directly granted to employers who do not need to submit an application. This is the case of structural contribution reductions. The system is designed so that this aspect is taken into account during calculation of the financial impact. 

In the future, a goal will be to make the application more interactive and, for example, to allow users to submit online applications for measures.

Four key aspects of the Front Office Employment project can be highlighted.

1.    Information provided to employers is clear and the use of legal-administrative jargon is avoided as much as possible. As a result, each measure is presented as an information sheet containing a detailed description of the measure and the stakes involved. The sheets are reviewed for legibility and their accessibility to laypersons.

2.    The information must be updated continuously. To this end, use of a Content Management System (CMS) makes it possible to manage the content in a decentralised manner. Thus, the responsibility for each of the measures remains with the competent authority, meaning the body which created the measure. This makes the platform highly dynamic as it is updated by the partners which are directly involved.

3.    Circulation of the information through various channels means that the widest possible target audience is reached. The authorities which wish to do so can integrate the application into their site; according to the chameleon principle, it will take on their own look & feel.

4.    The work to coordinate and set-up this intense collaboration has resulted in the reconciliation of various points of view between the federal and regional institutions.

Policy Context

  1. In 2000, EU heads of state and governmental leaders agreed to launch the Lisbon Strategy to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic economy in the world by 2010, giving it the ability to achieve lasting economic growth with quantitatively and qualitatively improved employment, greater social cohesion and environmental sustainability. This strategy is part of the European Employment Strategy which provides guidance and targets in precise figures for the Member States. As part of this strategy, Member States must strive for 70% employment overall, 60% female employment and 50% employment for the category over the age of 55 years.*
     
  2. Between 2000 and 2007, Belgium created 259,200 jobs divided up between paid employees (+185,700), self-employed workers (+14,200) and public servants (+59,400), a category characterised by relative stagnation since 2005.*
    The increase in the number of job positions observed over the past years was mainly generated by the private sector. One could consider that public policies have also promoted the progression of employment through measures to reduce contributions and award subsidies.* 
     
  3. Compared with the year of launch of the Lisbon Strategy, unemployment has dropped to stabilise at 7.5% in 2007.*
     
  4. Belgium offered a series of incentives to promote employment: reduced employer contributions, activation of unemployment benefits, hiring plans, …
    These measures in and of themselves are effective, but they have multiplied, becoming more complex and sometimes overlapping with regional measures. Furthermore, in light of the number of coexisting measures, it is not always easy for employers or employees to navigate among them and, more importantly, to identify which rules best correspond to their situation.

In this context, how can employment be effectively promoted among employers? How can the largest number of job seekers be helped to find a job? How can employers be allowed to offer professional reorientation to their employees? To tackle these challenges, public authorities, both at the federal and regional or community levels, decided to take concrete measures to increase the efficacy of initiatives aimed at promoting employment. The Front Office Employment project was set up to provide greater clarity on the matter and to make the dispositions available to all.

To do this, the authorities turned to new information technologies. More specifically, to present all parameters taken into account for the allocation of employment-based benefits and, more importantly, to simplify communications, the project’s authors decided to develop a “meta” data model to describe and propose all of the measures. With this model, we now have all of the appropriate tools necessary at hand at all levels of authority to enforce the legislation.

The project was situated in a general e-government strategy that was defined within the Belgian social security sector at the start of the 1990s, the basic principles of which were adopted into the national e-government strategy in 2000. The strategic plan of the project was transparent for all the involved parties from the beginning. 

* http://www.milquet.belgium.be/fr/category/sujets/emploi

Excerpt from the 2009 Employment Plan

Description of target users and groups

Through the Front Office Employment project, 4 audiences are specifically targeted to allow as many as possible to work or continue working:

  • employers looking to hire an employer and thus seeking the most advantageous conditions for themselves
  • employers looking to obtain information for its employees on financing continuous training and educational leave, to continue to maintain their level of knowledge or to acquire additional skills for their job or to reorient them professionally
  • job seekers looking to gain a comprehensive view of all measures to promote employment from which their future employer could benefit, based on the job seeker’s characteristics, if they were to be hired
  • as an extension of these categories, those intermediaries such as employer advisors in particular (social security offices, …) and job seeker consultants (Forem, VDAB, …)

The Front Office Employment project was developed in close collaboration with the various target audiences. More specifically, the following groups were involved: employers (small businesses, social security offices and large employers), intermediary employment organisations, employees and job seekers (with special attention given to certain target groups such as younger age groups, the least qualified, and individuals over the age of 45 years). User panels were composed to devise an application directly tuned to the various concrete situations encountered, integrated into a highly convivial website (for example, each measure can be printed or downloaded).

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The Front Office Employment project constituted a positive experience which was interesting from a collaboration standpoint. Authorities at the federal and regional (Brussels Capital, Flemish and Walloon as well as the German-speaking community) levels were involved under the coordination of the Crossroads Bank for Social Security (CBSS) to create a coherent, practical application. 

All political levels in Belgium competent in the area of employment came together to adopt a joint strategy. The view points and priorities were harmonised to form a collective project. The CBSS chose to create a partnership where all parties involved maintained their management autonomy but were given direct responsibilities. 

The whole project was prepared, developed and implemented in close co-operation between all involved actors. Beside these existing formal consultation bodies a number of ad hoc consultation platforms were established between :the representatives of the involved Ministers and the general managers of the involved social security offices; the ICT experts of the involved social security offices, the employers, trade unions and the mandated intermediaries of the employers; subject matter experts from the actors in the social sector for each concrete process revision.

This project is also the fruit of a multidisciplinary collaborative effort. Specialists from various fields such as legal experts, technicians in Content Management System, Rules Engine, web applications, design and usability experts as well as IT experts were involved in the process.

The project was ambitious since its goal was to give the majority of job seekers, employees and employers access to measures to promote employment. To this end, the project’s partners mobilised the necessary resources to succeed in this ambition. The application was designed and developed to be integrated very easily into the existing websites and to reach the widest audience possible. The underlying idea was to spread as much information as possible to achieve an amplifying effect. 

To deal with a project of this scope, the partners decided to divide it into phases and various steps. It made it easier to stay on schedule and keep the budget under control. But, most importantly, the stakeholders were able to rapidly see progress and gain a view of the results achieved.

The first phase aimed to create a bilingual access point which was accessible via internet and where the various federal, regional and community legal dispositions could be consulted and updated. The user needed to be able to select from among the best measures given his/her personal situation and based on certain criteria (such as age, sector, region, …). Each of the measures was to be described using text designed to be legible by the widest audience possible, from ordinary users to experts in the field. 

During the second phase, the application was to be readied to calculate the financial benefit which users could hope to gain depending on the measures applicable to them. Another aim was to plan for preliminary integration of data on the employer and/or job seeker, deriving directly from authentic sources. Use of the electronic ID card through a secure connection with the back office serves to identify the user with absolute certainty. An interactive and repetitive procedure serves to provide users with conclusive results on their situation. The system was to be able to operate with uncertain and missing data to identify pertinent data which could be added to that not initially present.
During the second phase, the website was also planned to be made available in German. The coordination work performed by the CBSS is not over now that the website is online. The platform must be updated and monitored in order to motivate the partners to keep up their investment in the project. The institutions concerned still remain competent for their content and measures and update of the website depends on them.

Technology solution

With Front Office Employment, the measures to promote employment and their benefits can be consulted and estimated electronically and in a personalised manner. 

1.     Content Management System (CMS)
It was necessary to collect and analyse the existing measures in force in the area of employment promotion in Belgium and to determine the shared criteria to draft a harmonised explanation of the measures using non-legal language. The goal was to provide an overview of the measures and allow implementation of the texts describing the measures into the application.
The CMS served to facilitate the management of the various versions of one same text and to make the texts available in the three national languages. 

2.     Data model
The various measures were analysed to bring out their basic components, meaning criteria first to decide whether or not they apply and then to calculate the benefit as well as the cumulative benefit of measures. This information was modelled, meaning that the basic components, their characteristics and reciprocal relationships were defined based on an abstract view of reality and not on legal concepts.

3.     Rules engine
Within an expert system, rules are applied to the data model to thus allow for simulations based on rather detailed input.
The results of these simulations should indicate:
- which measures apply
- what the financial benefits are for the various measures (as an indication)
- which data is lacking to be able to provide a more accurate response

The simulation is an interactive and repetitive tool for users. The system proceeds by successive approximations until users obtain a result which is significant for them.

With this type of system, only a few pieces of data need to be input to start a simulation. The other required data is then added, possibly in several steps. The system automatically adjusts its assumptions / hypotheses throughout the process.

4.     Automatic data integration
The competent authorities decided to use the same identification system already implemented at the federal level. Job seekers/employees are identified using their electronic ID card and employers sign in using a username and password or electronic ID card. This type of identification automatically integrates known personal data from certain databases, thus dispensing users from the need to manually enter the information required to determine whether measures apply and to calculate the benefits. In the future, the use of authentic sources will increase in order to reduce manual data entry to a minimum.

5.    Replication
The web application in which the users perform their searches to find those measures which best match their profile was designed to be easily integrated into other web environments. The application can be made accessible via the internet sites of the various administrations which are partners in the project.

Technology choice: Standards-based technology, Open source software

Main results, benefits and impacts

Main accomplishments

1)    It was necessary to collect and analyse the existing measures in force in the area of employment promotion in Belgium. The goal was to obtain an overall view.

2)    A trilingual website (French, Dutch, German) is operational: www.aandeslag.be / www.andiearbeit.be / www.autravail.be .

3)    The sites are presented from two angles, that of employers and that of job seekers, and each has a special point of access to a simple simulation.
The simulation, which is also trilingual, allows users to identify all of the existing information corresponding to their situation.

4)    A calculator of the financial benefits associated with the measures is under development.
This required the analysis of information collected from various institutions. Because the methods for calculation of the benefits differed among the employment promotion measures, the requirements needed to be programmed in a specific manner. The measures were analysed to bring out for each the criteria to decide whether or not they apply and to calculate the benefit as well as the cumulative benefit of measures.

5)    Authentic sources were associated with the predefined criteria. As a result, if users are willing to sign in, certain questions required to determine whether or not some measures are applicable are no longer asked. The application also allows for preliminary integration of data on the employer and/or job seeker, deriving directly from authentic sources.


The results

With the Front Office Employment project, Belgian authorities set out to develop a practical and interactive tool for all those wishing to find work / keep their job or to hire employees. In practice, www.autravail.be regularly facilitates access to measures to promote employment. Furthermore, any employer or job seeker can calculate the possible financial benefit. This project which is coordinated by the CBSS is an example of the ongoing collaborative effects between the various levels of power. 

As of the 1st of June 2009, less than 3 years after the launch of Front Office Employment, the users of the web application had performed 653,237 consultations (simulations). The results show that use is nearly equally divided between employers or employees. The figures are, respectively, 333,740 consultations for employers and 319,497 for employees. To date, the application contains 114 employment promotion measures, of which 41 at the federal level, 9 from the German-speaking community, 24 from the Region of Brussels-Capital, 23 from the Flemish region and 17 from the Walloon region.
The Front Office Employment project constitutes an adequate response to a need for increased clarity and transparency and it assembles all pertinent information into one single web application. It is part of a dynamic approach aimed at increasing the number of opportunities for individuals on the demand side of the employment market.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

The choice of work methods to create a link between complex and often changing legislation and a practice application was crucial. The Content Management System, the expert system and the methods used to model legal concepts have resulted in the formalisation of rather specialised legal knowledge to translate it into fact-based data which served to identify rules. There are many possible applications, whether it be the management of a system of subsidies, award of study grants or even allocation of rights.

Like the employment domain which is separated between different levels of competence, other domains are also broken up, some even involving different Member States. The countries concerned could use Front Office Employment as a model to come together to grant the target audience easier access to all rules concerning it (Energy and transportation, Research, Health and consumer protection, …).

Front Office Employment served as the vector to ensure the success of a project to promote employment throughout the entire country in a complex legislative context and fragmented executive environment. The collaboration between the various institutions was fundamental, thus making it possible to provide a site which is continually complemented and updated. 

Any project requiring cooperation and coordination between different institutions, different levels of power can take the methods used in the context of Front Office Employment as an example.

In more concrete terms, the federal government has a vast project for a Career Planning System on hold. The ambition of this project is to provide an application which would allow for simulation of the consequences of certain career choices or events (parental leave, work accident, reduction of work time, …) on social rights. The plan is already to reuse the application developed for Front Office Employment for this project. 

With Front Office Employment, Belgium is the first European country in which employment promotion measures and benefits can be consulted and estimated electronically in an individualised manner. www.autravail.be is a site which combines simplification, innovation and ease of employment. Belgium could propose this project to other Member States which could adapt the architecture to fit their employment promotion measures for employers and citizens.

Lessons learnt

The realised project contains important lessons for every government that strives to improve its services towards the users and especially towards companies. 

1. Thanks to the enormous coordination efforts and the spirit of cooperation which reigned at all times between the various parties, the entire project was a success. Throughout the entire process, these aspects turned out to be fundamental for the successful completion of the various tasks and for creation of the interactive application. 

When so many organisations are involved in a project, it is not an easy task to bring all of the various points of view together and find a common interest. Reaching a consensus between the various levels of responsibility turned out to be particularly complex, especially within the relatively short timing. This required constant attention to provide clear communications to all partners in order to guarantee their full cooperation and involvement. 

The Front Office Employment project constituted an extremely positive experience which was interesting from a collaboration standpoint. Authorities at the federal and regional (Brussels Capital, Flemish and Walloon as well as the German-speaking community) levels were involved under the coordination of the CBSS to create a coherent, practical application. This project is also the fruit of a multidisciplinary collaborative effort. Specialists from various fields such as legal experts, technicians in Content Management System, Rules Engine, web applications, design and usability experts as well as IT experts were involved in the process.

In this environment, communication was primordial because the information had to circulate rapidly and accurately. The many parties involved were forced to work and function together. They needed to be able to understand each other, even when they were not all speaking the same “language”.

2. Legislation in the area of employment is not only complex, but also very specialised. The choice of the approach used to “handle” such difficult themes which are inevitably called upon to change over time from an IT perspective was decisive. The various measures were analysed to bring out their basic components. This information was modelled, meaning that the basic components, their characteristics and reciprocal relationships were defined based on an abstract view of reality and not on legal concepts. 

This definition based on an abstract view of reality should make it possible to avoid the need to modify the information model as a result of changes to the legislation.

3. For each feature of the application, the option chosen was to develop a specific technical component. We favoured an approach which independently integrates the various components rather than a holistic approach where the various technical components would be interwoven with each other to form one single tool. Here, each part was designed and developed and operates autonomously while retaining its ability to combine with the other components according to the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) principles. Moreover, all of these components were designed to be reused for other applications. One could look at it like an orchestra, composed of instruments which all play solos well but which acquire another dimension by harmonising together. At the same time, each instrument could easily join another orchestra and play from a different score.

Scope: National
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