When Less Is More

When Less Is More

At Block 787A in Choa Chu Kang, the illegal parking that has plagued residents for years is finally starting to stop as newly installed CCTV cameras watch over drivers and penalty letters are mailed to violators. Based on successes like that, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is rolling out at least 30 more CCTV cameras to enforce parking regulations at even more places.

In labour-short Singapore, the use of surveillance cameras has reduced the number of officers assigned to patrol duty, raising manpower productivity while creating a more liveable space for residents.

Here, as in many countries, increasing public sector productivity is becoming more critical.

A key factor, as Accenture found in 2012 research, is that Singapore and other nations are “confronting shortfalls of billions of dollars over the next dozen years just to be able to deliver public services at current levels to future populations”. (Read the full report)

The management consultancy forecasts that by 2025, Singapore’s dramatically ageing population will increase government expenditure by $13 billion. It also estimates that by then there will be a shortfall of $10 billion in total government revenue due to ballooning expenditure. These shifts means productivity, which Accenture defines as delivering better outcomes for the same or lower cost, is essential.

What Singapore is doing

The Public Service is all too aware of these challenges. It has already been turning to IT and automation, as well as re-organising workflow and consolidating services, to boost productivity. (See sidebox - Four ways to boost public sector productivity.)

There is also a Manpower Management Framework that incentivises ministries to keep their headcount growth at a sustainable rate. In the wake of a tightening labour market, the government has to only take its fair share of the labour force, said Mr Puah Kok Keong, Director of Fiscal Policy, Ministry of Finance, who oversees the scheme.

But public sector productivity goes beyond costs and manpower planning. A key part of boosting productivity, said Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) Resource Division Director Sim Feng-Ji, who also staffs the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council, “is how we can add more value or do things more effectively”.


Four ways to boost public sector productivity

  1. Using IT and automation to increase service capacity without requiring more manpower
  2. Promoting organisational efficiency. For example, having a central cleaning agency in the Department of Public Cleanliness allows economies of scale in procuring and managing cleaning services
  3. Training and upgrading public officers’ skills through the Civil Service College’s programmes
  4. Keeping overall public sector headcount growth at a sustainable rate through the Manpower Management Framework

People make a difference

At the heart of the pursuit for productivity is the public officers themselves.

Many global and local examples show that it is often the work of a few highly motivated individuals who drive change by initiating innovative schemes or policies, or by being early and enthusiastic adopters of new processes.

At the US Air Force’s Mildenhall UK base, three airmen took the initiative to redesign their vehicle maintenance workflow, which improved safety and bumped productivity up 600%.

Many global and local examples show that it is often the work of a few highly motivated individuals who drive change – by initiating innovative schemes or policies, or by being early and enthusiastic adopters of new processes.

In the UK, the Haltemprice Neighbourhood Care Team saved 1,200 hours in the first year of implementing a Planning Our Workload module, which transferred paper-based work distribution process onto a centralised clinical system.

In our previous issue, Challenge featured a team of eight from the Department of Public Cleanliness that leveraged technology to help the department do more work without hiring more people.

More than ever, there's a need to work better, faster and smarter in the public sector. And sometimes all it takes is a person with a vision, or a team's novel idea, to create change with a big impact.
When Less Is More
While at the Ministry of Health, Mr Scott Tan had a vision for a means testing system that would span various ministries, and worked with a small team to swiftly make it happen.

A public service delivery problem

In 2011, the government announced that it would expand a variety of healthcare and eldercare subsidies across the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development. While the policy change would benefit a much wider group of elderly, it would also create a huge spike in means testing, said former MOH Deputy Director Scott Tan.

As Mr Tan discussed with service providers about implementing the change, he saw that the current means testing, done manually by each provider, would cause a bottleneck and increase the administrative workload in the social sector.

Further, the elderly would take longer to benefit from the subsidies, and would need to struggle with repeated means tests – submitting duplicate forms and income documentation – each time they went to another service provider.

“The implementation was centred around the organisation or scheme, not the citizen – a classic public service delivery problem that [blunts] the benefits of a good policy,” said Mr Tan.


Measuring productivity

Last May, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament that “most governments find it difficult to measure productivity accurately in public services, as the value created … is often intangible and not easily quantified.” He said the Public Service has always been committed to the efficient delivery of better services. One indicator is the public sector’s share of the labour force, which at 3.6%, is one of the lowest internationally and compares favourably with 4% in Hong Kong and 12% in the UK.

Thinking big for better service

Mr Tan decided to develop a whole-of-government solution to improve the citizen experience for means testing, stepping outside the bounds of his own ministry.

He immediately ran into a slew of resistance. There were concerns about spending extra resources on a broader system that would span different subsidy schemes across ministries. His own team was “severely under-staffed” and faced tight deadlines. And with the Personal Data Protection Act taking effect soon, stakeholders were unwilling to share data.

The implementation was centred around the organisation or scheme, not the citizen – a classic public service delivery problem that [blunts] the benefits of a good policy.

“We could have just implemented our own long-term care subsidies for ourselves, but by thinking bigger we unlocked many times the public value in productivity and being citizen-centric,” Mr Tan said.

The effort took a lot of his attention, and he readily acknowledges that he couldn’t have done it on his own. “I had a vision about what to do, but thankfully my team rallied behind it,” he said, crediting each member: Wu Hong King, Denise Koh, Tay Hui Shan, Ong Jing Fang and Chan Mun Yee. “They made it happen. Phones were ringing off the hook. [The experience] was amazing.”

His team also found “strong allies” in the service providers, and data agencies like the Central Provident Fund Board (CPF) and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS).

A year and a half later, the gains from the flexible “New Means Testing System” are clear. More than 50% of low-income groups are covered. About 65,000 of the 280,000 households that were means-tested avoided repeat testing, and about 160,000 additional means testing applications were avoided. Service providers saw a 37% reduction in workload, with a new broad legal framework allowing them to freely share data and coordinate help. Now, the Community Development Councils and some tertiary institutions are looking to use it too.

With a whole-of-government legal and IT backbone in place for service providers,Mr Tan said the potential benefits are huge for other sectors, such as education. “It’s not just better service delivery, but also using big data to understand the multi-agency needs of households, and possibly anticipate who’s likely to need more help.”

What's in it for me

Productivity doesn’t just save money or benefit the public. MOF’s Mr Puah points out that for public officers desiring more meaningful work, improved work processes will help them spend less time on mundane duties like data entry. For example, self-service passport application online and collection via the iCollect machine allow customer service officers at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to handle more complex immigration issues.

When Less Is More
Going from piles of paperwork to a simpler affair for both taxpayers and IRAS. The No-Filing Service team, from left: Mdm Chew Soh Lang (Director, Infocomm Division), Ms Magdelene Silva, Ms Cheng Hui Yi, Ms Deanna Choo and Mr Dennis Lui

What it takes

Reflecting on how such productivity improvements actually happen, Mr Tan, now a Director at MTI, said: “Organisations need to see beyond boundaries. The ‘greater good’ is often lost to overworked staff. We need to empower individuals who understand the ground challenges to float ideas, and give them flexibility to pursue them.

“We’re not short of good policy ideas. But the willingness to ‘get our hands dirty’ is often found wanting. I imagine the overall public benefit could be greater if we had fewer schemes but [emphasised] much better implementation.”

As they analysed how taxpayers filed, they found that most taxpayers did not add any data to the pre-filled forms. The next logical step, then, was a radical one – no filing.

Another critical factor, Mr Tan said, is passion. “Personal belief kept me going despite the tough challenges. It made me own the outcome.”

Looking back, he said: “The workload was tremendous and my team thought I was crazy.” Now, though, “I’m pretty sure they look back with pride at what they’ve achieved.”

Rethinking productivity: reducing land space

The Housing & Development Board has always needed to build vertically to house residents. Now, the Ministry of Defence has also built upwards with its Multi-Mission Range Complex, a three-storey building housing seven firing ranges. The Complex saves land space equal to 30 football fields. It can also simulate various climate and terrain conditions; this means that soldiers’ time can be planned and used more efficiently with their training being less dependent on the weather. Up to 900 soldiers can do their shoots in a single day – something that would have taken two to three days to complete in a traditional outdoor range.

Thinking radically, as an organisation

In Mr Tan’s case, a single individual with a vision, working with a small team, pushed forward an idea that improved productivity and delivered far better outcomes. That go-getter mindset of changing things dramatically has long permeated IRAS and created a strong culture of innovation.

Over the years, IRAS has gone through a multitude of changes to simplify tax filing. It shifted from an eight-page form to a two-page form and then, in 2005, to a pre-filled electronic tax filing form. When it seemed that everything possible had been done, staff still asked, “What’s next?”

“We try to make tax filing as easy as possible,” said Mr Dennis Lui, Assistant Commissioner, Taxpayer Services Division, “to keep voluntary compliance high. If everybody does not comply, the Tax Compliance Division has to do a lot of work.”

Underpinning this framework of simplicity for taxpayers is the concept “No Need For Service Is The Best Service”.

To figure out what came next, IRAS brainstormed across divisions. As they analysed how taxpayers filed, they found that most taxpayers did not add any data to the pre-filled electronic tax forms. The next logical step, then, was a radical one – no filing.

“We started off the No-Filing Service in 2007 and piloted it to 45,000 people,” said Ms Deanna Choo, Director, Enforcement Division. Yet despite doing plenty of analysis, the team was still worried. “Are taxpayers ready? Would there be a revenue loss?”

Despite their concerns, more than 70% of participants in the pilot used the No-Filing Service without any issues. “Results were encouraging,” said Ms Cheng Hui Yi, Manager, Corporate Development Division, adding that only 6.5% of the pilot participants had queries, compared with 15% to 20% for pilots of other initiatives.

Now, after a full-scale roll-out, the No-Filing Service – used by more than 1.2 million individuals – has massively increased productivity for taxpayers. And IRAS has benefited from 18% fewer inquiries despite an 8% rise in the number of taxpayers since 2007.

How ideas can grow

Looking back, IRAS staff said the no-filing idea did not stem from one person. It evolved from discussions where staff sat down together to look at how to reduce the pain of filing and improve productivity.

A starting point for having ideas is an environment where staff know they will get support from senior management. “There is no fixed way in which ideas are generated. If I have an idea, I will share it with my bosses and they are open to having discussions,” said Ms Cheng. And Ms Magdelene Silva, Director, Individual Income Tax Division, said staff come up with ideas by using their own background and skills. “They may not have the solution. They highlight the problem area, then we can come up with a solution together.”

At a high level, Mr Lui said, the senior management works to build a consensus when it has decided on what outcomes it wants. “If people are engaged, they want to think of ways to derive meaning from the job.” (Read the Challenge-Nov/Dec 2012 cover story; on how engaged staff increase productivity.)

It’s also important to encourage ongoing innovation. Now, even after what might seem like the last step in making tax filing easier, IRAS is still looking at how to do even more. One option could be allowing taxpayers to receive their Notice of Assessment immediately after filing, for example, and Mr Lui said some ideas are even more futuristic.

However it happens, there are sure to be plenty more changes. As Ms Choo said, IRAS has a culture of being innovative. “The organisation embraces that, at all levels. We are not worried about tabling suggestions. Everybody has ideas.”


Smile, you're on camera

The National Environment Agency is currently piloting an automated system to detect illegal hawkers or touts. The aim is for portable cameras and video analytics to accurately alert the authorities to unlicensed vendors who set up temporarily at various locations. Meanwhile, LTA is working with the Traffic Police to develop and test a new Licence Plate Recognition technology that can identify and capture offenders who drive within bus lanes during restricted hours or make illegal U-turns. The enforcement of both bus lane and off-peak car use would improve, while reducing the reliance on manpower resources.

So put on your thinking cap

People like Mr Tan, Mr Lui and their teammates clearly understand the importance of taking initiative, and they are already looking for their next ideas. That mindset, focused on new ideas and innovations that will improve productivity, offers superb insights on how officers in other agencies can follow suit.

For the productivity improvements the government needs, as Mr Tan’s and Mr Lui’s teams show, thinking and acting differently is essential – be it brainstorming for solutions, empowering individuals to come up with ideas, or passionately pursuing an end goal despite opposition.

MTI’s Mr Sim said his experience is that top management is open to new ideas. “Difficulties are more imagined than real,” he said. “The most likely response is ‘sure, go explore it’. Why would he or she say ‘no’? After all, if you come up with a great idea, the boss looks good.”

The next step, then, is for every public officer to make that shift from continuing work as usual to looking at what innovations can make life easier for the public, and figure out the next big idea – or a simple one – that will help transform the Public Service.

    Jul 2, 2014
    Richard Hartung
    Lumina and John Heng
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