How to Champion the Man in the Street

Two advocates share their experiences. 
How to Champion the Man in the Street

It's not an exaggeration to say that the Singapore Public Service is often viewed as a bit of a cold fish. Its efficiency notwithstanding, the impression is that it is fixated on achieving quantifiable KPIs – caring less about how people feel, or what they think. No surprise, then, that the call for “a little more empathy” has grown louder, as citizens ask, “What about my point of view?”

So how can public agencies develop greater empathy? Going further, how can they challenge policy rules and assumptions on behalf of citizens?

One way is to appoint senior managers to take on citizen advocate roles – something the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has done for two years now.

Its Group Director of Engineering Paul Fok wears a “pedestrian champion” hat while his colleague Dr Chin Kian Keong is known as the “cyclist champion”. Dr Chin is Group Director for Road Operations & Community Partnership.

“Our role is to always look at things – for example, at meetings – and ask, ‘Is there a cycling or pedestrian angle to raise or work on?’ It’s the same when we meet other agencies,” says Mr Fok.

Apart from walking the ground (and in Dr Chin’s case, occasionally cycling on roads and through park connectors), both advocates get ideas and feedback from the general public, their own teams and other LTA staff. They also conduct focus group discussions with specific users and consult grassroot leaders and Members of Parliament to make walking and cycling easier, safer and more enjoyable.

The champion’s “hat” is firmly on at all times, says Dr Chin. For instance, he adds, “there was one road that we were considering widening and realigning, so I said, ‘Instead of realigning the road as what it was, why not put in bicycle paths as well?’” The idea didn’t materialise because of land use issues, but “at least there was the attempt to consciously look at cycling.” Dr Chin has also  tasked his engineers to be on the lookout for areas where they can introduce signalised crossings for cyclists.

He admits: “If I wasn’t wearing this champion hat, I probably would have waited for someone else to ask for [the crossings].”

Dr Chin also sits on various inter-agency committees that look at cycling infrastructure in Singapore. He’s found that the real challenge lies not just in building bike paths, but in building an accepted cycling culture here. “How do you get non-cyclists to respect cyclists? Culture doesn’t come about overnight. It’s a long drawn-out exercise that we’ve started on and I think it will go on for a while,” he shares.

Becoming an advocate has also changed the way the civil engineers at LTA work. Mr Fok reveals that they used to resolve problems on a case-by-case basis. Now, they study the fundamental issues troubling most users and attempt to resolve them from a systems or “big picture” perspective.

For instance, they realised that public transport commuters who walked to their rides often had no shelter. After a study and consultation with stakeholders, LTA introduced the Walk2Ride programme in January 2013 to build sheltered linkways within a 400m radius of MRT stations so that pedestrians will find it easier to walk to their rides. Overhead bridges within 200m of MRT stations will also be fitted with lifts if there are no alternative barrier-free crossings nearby, so the needs of the elderly and less mobile population aren’t overlooked

The champion’s “hat” is firmly on at all times, says Dr Chin. For instance, he adds, “there was one road that we were considering widening and realigning, so I said, ‘Instead of realigning the road as what it was, why not put in bicycle paths as well?’”

Mr Fok shares that their citizen advocacy broke new ground when LTA built a covered linkway on a plot of vacant land near Lakeside MRT station. “Traditionally, you don’t touch that,” he says. “Usually [the land authorities] would say it’s safeguarded for [other purposes].” But LTA got the green light by thinking differently: it proposed that that linkway be a temporary one that could be easily rerouted or tweaked when the piece of land gets developed.

Ultimately, says Mr Fok, their work should be to put “people at the centre of everything we do”. That may sound like common sense but it can still be easily overlooked. “Very often when you do design… you forget who you’re designing for. So wearing this hat of champion makes us extremely aware… that everything we build is for people to use,” he says.


How to Champion the Man in the Street


Appoint advocates who are prepared to go beyond their normal duties. Thinking of the larger picture (“Is there a greater good for society?”) helps, advises Mr Fok.


LTA’s Chief Executive introduces the champions at every opportunity. This strong high-level support reinforces their roles and raises awareness within the organisation.


They can influence policies at an early stage, and have the clout to back new ideas, approve budgets and view things from a macro perspective.

Know of any citizen advocates in the Public Service? Tip us off at 

    May 13, 2013
    Bridgette See
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