We all know that dreaded feeling when you have spent hours crafting a solution only for someone to say, “great work, but…”. I remember one such occasion early on in my career. Our team had built a really clever model – back in the days when Excel was the only show in town – to value some particularly complicated benefits. We felt so pleased with ourselves. And then it came: “Great work, the model is excellent, but…”. But what? The output from the model was rendered useless because the quality of the member data going in was hopeless. GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out.
The pursuit of striving for high quality data has not always felt like a top priority, with more attention being focussed on developing systems that can carry out complex calculations. However, from that day on, the importance of having great quality member data stuck with me. It’s quite simple. You can have the whizziest solution, but it will all be in vain if it the underlying member data is not up to scratch.
Care and attention
The matter of poor quality member data runs deep. At its core, it undermines the ability of trustees and their advisers to run pension schemes effectively, increasing the chances of poor member outcomes. Or, to put it another way, poor quality member data significantly increases the risk of not paying the right beneficiaries the right benefits at the right time. Then, there is the amount of wasted time to correct the incorrect, and the anxiety felt by members along the way. Oh, and for trustees and advisers, there is the not so small matter of potential reputational damage too. Overall, managing a pension scheme with poor quality data is like driving a car with a suspension – it’s not a pleasant journey.
So what’s the solution? High quality member data doesn’t just appear overnight. It requires significant time and investment in both systems and people to get things right. Care needs to be taken to work out what data is needed. The data then needs to be collected and validated. Gaps should be highlighted and where appropriate, any missing or inaccurate data needs to be hunted down. Importantly, member data should be tended to constantly and not just reviewed once every three years because that’s when an actuarial valuation is being carried out.
Members now demand, and expect an ever-quicker turnaround of information on their pension scheme benefits. I can get 24/7 access to my current account, my credit card, my insurance, even my car breakdown policy, so why not my pension? In the digital age, there’s really no excuse for not offering more online engagement for members. Online member portals, and even apps that are readily accessible on smartphones or tablets, offer much more than the ability to engage more readily with pension savers. They also allow members to self-serve. This presents trustees and advisers with an opportunity to get the members to do some of the heavy lifting to help validate their own data, and provide the answers to the often crucial gaps in their data.
These digital solutions are a win-win-win, with members, trustees and advisers all benefiting. They lead to better educated members, who are more engaged and empowered to achieve better outcomes. They will also be less likely to be duped by scammers as they should have a greater understanding of their benefits and options.
Insurance companies – often the final destination for many pension schemes – will also look favourably upon those schemes with good quality data, with a further win being a better premium on offer to the trustees.
Output is intrinsically linked to input. If the data that the scheme holds is not fit for purpose, then it follows on that the outcomes won’t be either. Accurate record keeping is vital for good governance, good administration and for the pensions dashboards. The great work has been done; the solutions are out there; trustees can either go GIGO or go online!