By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Chamber of Commerce's chief executive yesterday hailed the National Insurance Board's (NIB) new employer portal as "a giant step forward that could not be better timed".
Jeffrey Beckles, speaking after NIB presented its new initiative to the private sector at a breakfast meeting, told Tribune Business that it "is probably one of the most innovative announcements we've seen in a long time".
Noting that the business community had been "crying" for developments that improved the "the ease of doing business", he said NIB's transition from a manual, paper-based contribution system to an online process should create "much greater efficiency all around" for individual companies when it comes to managing and making payments.
NIB's Employer's Self-Service (ESS) portal is an Internet-based solution designed so that Bahamian employers can manage their contribution payments and compliance in a manner that eliminates bureaucracy and red tape, and Mr Beckles described its presentation to Chamber members as akin to "showing us the future".
Some 41 firms were originally involved in the portal's test phase, and the Chamber chief yesterday said "that number went up by 25 to 30 companies" following the presentation given by Dr Nicola Virgill-Rolle, NIB's director, and her team.
Pledging the private sector's backing for the initiative, Mr Beckles said: "In the coming weeks we want to get as many companies involved with the beta testing phase as possible so they can provide feedback.
"It was probably one of the most innovative announcements we've seen in a long time. We've been crying for so many different initiatives across the landscape, it was almost like showing us the future. It was very encouraging, and even more encouraging to see the number of businesses sign up to participate in bets testing with a view to giving feedback."
The portal is a website where Bahamian employers can log-on from anywhere, and at any time, to manage their NIB accounts. They will be able to submit the "c10" contribution forms; make contribution payments using a debit/credit card (Visa or Mastercard only); and manage their employee register.
NIB has touted the reforms as digitising and simplifying the process of submitting c10s and making contribution payments. It added that this will eliminate long lines and unnecessary trips to NIB for employers, while aiding the social security system by eliminating contribution backlogs since employers can upload information directly into the system.
Manual data entry by NIB personnel will also cease, with the portal placing employers in control and simplifying the process. "Our goal is to eliminate contribution backlogs, which is expected to result in a higher level of compliance in the future," NIB said earlier.
"Contributions are at the heart of NIB's operations, and are used to accurately calculate benefits and determine claim eligibility. In May 2018, the board commenced the 'v3' stabilisation project. Since then, some 260,000 c10s was placed in the backlog processing system.
"These represent backlogs from April 2016 to October 31, 2018, of which some 245,000 have been digitised and about 188,000 of these have been posted to employer and employee accounts. With the implementation of a special initiative geared toward reducing the accumulation of excess contribution forms, this number was significantly reduced."
The NIB initiative links directly to the government's goal of digitising most of the services provided by the public sector to the Bahamian people, along with its objective to improve the "ease of doing business" in The Bahamas.
"It's going to become the norm now as we seek to embrace technology; not only in the public sector but the private sector," Mr Beckles said yesterday of NIB's initiative. "That narrative about embracing technology is going to become the norm in this space.
"We tip our hat to it, and are going to support initiatives that improve our ease of doing business domestically, and anything that allows the business environment to thrive.... these are things we've got to support. It's a giant step forward. It is going to be a work in progress, but we're happy to see the effort being made."
Mr Beckles said increased participation by businesses in the beta testing will provide the necessary information that NIB needs to refine the portal and ensure that it operates with maximum efficiency once it goes fully live.
"This is something the business community has been calling for, and now it is here we embrace it, engage with it," he added. "It allows for greater range at NIB in terms of managing contributions and tracking changes, like employees changing jobs. All that historical data will be there.
"This is going to be the norm now. Customs fully rolled-out its Electronic Single Window (ESW) the other day, Road Traffic has been digitising for some time now. This is another step in that direction and the timing couldn't be better, particularly at a time when businesses are finding it very difficult, challenging and time consuming with all the forms. It's now technology-based, so it allows for much greater efficiency all around."
Mr Beckles said NIB's portal roll-out also coincides with the National Digitisation Committee's launch of the campaign to transform, and digitise, both the private and public sectors.