Blog | 04/07/2019

Death: where automation find its limits

Automation, robotics and machine learning are just some of the buzzwords that trumpet the dawn of a mechanised nirvana. An administrator-free future where members will self-service every part of their retirement journey, elevating us administrators to system managers or indeed, making us redundant. While we all know data quality, systems investment and scheme-specific complexities put this future some considerable distance out-of-reach, the debate also fails to acknowledge the sticky, messy parts of administration that a process and computer will never be able to fulfil.

Death cases are a prime example of where automation finds it’s limit. And it does so because a process and calculation can’t legislate for the complex web of relationships and circumstances we weave throughout our lives. Apart from the obvious delicacy these cases demand, death cases also often require a raft of documentation and evidence that is unique to each case.

Every battle-hardened administrator will give you countless examples of where members haven’t kept their expression of wish up to date, or where conflicts exist between versions. Where members’ current living and life arrangements don’t match their stated wishes, or where family members contest properly recorded documents.

A colleague recalled the most complex death case they had ever been involved with, one which resonated with me as it clearly demonstrated the value and benefit of the trust system. While not technically complex, it involved a difficult set of decisions that raised issues of morality and prudence. The trustees were faced with settling a death claim where the spouse was under suspicion for complicity in their partner’s death.

With no concrete conviction, a young family dependent upon a dual income and the prospect of a very long-drawn-out criminal legal process to determine the circumstances surrounding the death, the trustees were left with a very challenging set of decisions.

As an administrator, you always want to follow a pre-defined process, if it involves a flowchart we’re in paradise. But in cases like this, it’s not prudent to simply settle all benefits immediately, and it’s not moral to withhold money for a family in crisis.  In this case, a flowchart simply wouldn’t evaluate, consider, review and act with pragmatism — something the trustees did alongside handling the matter with great sensitivity and care. In the end, the trustees decided to award the lump-sums to the children with a special trust being put in place that had specific covenants allowing access to the funds to support their upbringing.

Now in this case, put yourself in the shoes of the administrator. The amount of information, evidence and documentation that was needed by the trustees to support their decision making went well beyond anything you could ever put into a pre-formatted questionnaire or process-flow. And, whilst this is at the very limits of complexity, it does in vivid technicolour, illustrate how each case is nuanced and requires intelligence and insight when gathering and presenting a case for consideration. In fact, one big criticism often levelled by trustees is that administrators often don’t put themselves in trustees’ shoes, taking the time to analyse death cases to determine and gather all the supporting information that might been needed to discharge a discretionary benefit.

Technology is fantastic and has improved the lives of administrators, as well as the outcomes of members. But, we must acknowledge its limitations; concentrating its benefits on the processes and tasks that can be automated, whilst training and developing administration professionals to fill the gaps.

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