Pensions member portals: to boldly go?

For scientists and science fiction fans out there, the idea of portals brings amazing possibilities of exploration of space and time.

Although not quite so out of this world, pensions member portals are now starting to revolutionise the way that members interact with their pension scheme providers.

A member portal can allow members to access and provide information online.  This helps to meet members’ growing appetites for, and indeed expectations of, being able to tick off pension-related admin tasks quickly and at a time that suits them. It can also make the administration function more efficient, reducing response times, operating costs and freeing up administrator time to focus on the more complex aspects of running a scheme.

Sounds like a win-win situation, right? However, as well as such obvious potential advantages, using a member portal can bring new risks which will need to be appropriately managed. Otherwise you could potentially end up in a black hole of member complaints.

So what sorts of things might you need to think about?

What can the portal be used for? 

It needs to be clear exactly which tasks can be completed using the portal (and which can’t).  Some tasks will be obvious candidates for the portal. Others will need more careful consideration, particularly if they involve providing financial information such as indicative quotes.  The status of any such information will need to be clearly highlighted so members know to what extent it can be relied on and accompanied by robust and well-positioned disclaimers to help protect against complaints.

What terms will our members need to sign up to? 

Although they are likely to be fairly standardised, trustees should look at any terms that their members will need to sign up to when logging in to use the portal. Do they seem reasonable? Are they easy to understand? To what extent do they mitigate the Trustee’s risks (as well as the administrator’s)?

What contractual protections will we have? 

Trustees should check that their scheme’s administration services agreement covers the use of the portal.  Key contractual points to consider would include –

  • what degree of control will we have over the scope of use of the portal?
  • to what extent is the administrator taking responsibility for the tasks completed through the portal?
  • what assurances are being provided around the availability, security and functionality of the portal?
  • how does using the portal impact the fee structure and service levels?

How will it work in practice?

Trustees should ask questions about how the portal works so they can get comfortable that it is appropriate for their scheme. The administrator may have briefing materials which address the key points and/or be able to put you in contact with another client who can share their experience of using the portal.

How do we get members to use the portal?

 The success of the portal will depend on whether members actually use it in the right way. Trustees will therefore need to highlight the availability of the portal and tell members how to get the most out of it.  This may mean updating standard communications and raising awareness in scheme-wide member updates such as your annual newsletter.

What if members don’t want to use the portal (or it isn’t available)? 

Not all members will want to use the portal, so it is important to provide an appropriate alternative. Trustees will also want to know how the administrator will maintain service standards at times when the portal isn’t operational for any reason (for example, for updates or maintenance).

How can we monitor performance?

Trustees shouldn’t forget that they remain accountable for the proper running of their scheme. This includes any tasks carried out through the portal.  They should get regular reporting on the performance and use of the portal so they can maintain proper oversight and pick up any potential issues at an early stage.  Trustees may also want to invite feedback from members using the portal.

Do we need to update any of our scheme governance materials?  

As introducing a portal will change the way certain tasks are performed, trustees should pause to consider whether the use of the portal should be reflected in any of their wider scheme governance materials. For example, do they need to update any data protection documents, cyber security policies and/or their risk register?

Ultimately, so long as trustees go carefully and cautiously, as well as boldly, introducing a member portal could be a gateway to transport their scheme into a whole new universe of member connectivity.

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