From The Office To The Frontline

Policy officers get a chance to serve the public face to face and discover a new side of policymaking. 
From The Office To The Frontline

It was the tax-filing period. The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) was abuzz as members of the public – as many as 1,500 a day – streamed continually into the E-filing Services Centre, looking for help to file their taxes.

An elderly lady came to the Centre near closing time. She owned a number of properties and was unsure of how to go about filing taxes for them. Officer Jonathan Ng, 29, attended to her. He spent an hour explaining the relevant facts and guiding her through the procedure (typically each case would only take about five minutes). By the time he was done, the Centre was empty except for a few senior tax officers who had stayed back to help the pair.

But here’s the twist – Mr Ng is not a service staff at IRAS. He’s a futurist at the Strategic Policy Office, Prime Minister’s Office (Public Service Division). His “real” job is to work with agencies on strategic planning projects on long-term issues that cut across agency boundaries.

A chance to serve

He was serving citizens at the Centre as part of a special initiative to expose policy officers to frontline service work, so that they can better understand how policies are delivered on the ground. His efforts earned him praise from Senior Tax Officer Abdul Hadi bin Rafie. “Jonathan is very eager to learn and is very detailed. He shows extra care [in serving the public],” said Mr Hadi, who has been supervising the Centre since 2012.

Mr Ng is one of 13 participants in the programme, a majority of whom are young policy officers.

The officers spent one day familiarising themselves with the tax-filing system and shadowing the IRAS frontline staff. Then, they each manned a counter on their own for the next three days. Each officer could serve up to 30 persons a day.

This was the first time that policy officers could try doing operational work during IRAS’ busiest period. The Commissioner of Inland Revenue wanted to “give policy officers a chance to serve customers independently as well as experience first-hand the challenges faced by frontline officers,” said Mr Dennis Lui, Assistant Commissioner of Taxpayer Services Division and Quality Service Manager. Mr Lui was tasked in March to come up with a programme to facilitate this.

The policy officers’ stint was over in less than a week. But for most, if not all, of them, the lessons they learnt from the experience would stay with them for a long time.

Mr Ng saw the importance of empathy in communicating a policy. He recalled how the elderly lady was “frazzled” and felt that she would be fined for not having all the necessary information. “I had to reassure her that the system wasn’t as punitive as she imagined it to be, and that we would be able to sort out her taxes,” he said.

This is an example of the “emotional, relational” aspects of policy delivery that need to be considered when designing policies, he added.

From The Office To The Frontline

Caring through clear communication

The policy officers also learnt that policies are effective only if they are understood by members of the public, many of whom are less educated and unfamiliar with technology. Intimidated by technical jargon and procedures they found complicated, they would travel to IRAS for assistance even if it was inconvenient.

Ms Elaine Tay, 27, another policy officer, was concerned to see that many taxpayers had difficulty even finding the keys on the keyboard. “We have tried to keep the tax system simple to understand, but for these taxpayers that’s not really the case,” said Ms Tay, who specialises in tax policy at the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

Such insights have prompted the policy officers to consider ways to better communicate policies.

“In a diverse society where there are more foreigners and people who are not English-educated, it’s important to simplify our policies and make our communications and processes user-friendly,” said Ms Sarah Ng, 28, who formulates policies for social programmes at MOF.

Knowing the people they design policies for

For other participants, the chance to talk to the people that their policies impact was invaluable.

Ms Yirene Tan from MOF evaluates the Ministry of Transport’s budget and funding proposals, including its bus policies. During her stint at IRAS, she had helped two bus drivers to file their taxes and learnt about their work issues, such as how they were treated by their companies.

“This information is quite useful when I formulate policies for them. I don’t get to talk to them in my daily work, so this was a good exposure for me,” said Ms Tan, 25.

Because they were serving customers during the day, the policy officers in the programme had to answer their office emails at night. But the hard work was worth it when they received good feedback on their service from the public.

Every officer who designs policies should try frontline work, said Ms Ng, who acknowledged that there may be constraints such as work commitments, and feelings of guilt when participating officers have to rely on colleagues to cover their work. But she believes that these problems can be overcome if the organisation values such exposure and gives every officer the opportunity to try it.

“It would be good for more bosses to come and see what’s on the ground too,” she added with a laugh.


Advice from the frontline

Mr Hadi, who has 26 years of experience serving the public at IRAS, offered some tips.

  • Communicating with people at their level of understanding is key. “It is okay to use Singlish. No need [sic] pompous words.”
  • Watch the transaction time. Respectfully stop the other party when he starts asking hypothetical questions like “what if...”.
  • The knowledge of policies should be at your fingertips. “You cannot excuse yourself to leave the counter and ask questions.” That’s unprofessional.
  • If the other party is angry, don’t simply say: “It is policy”. Explain the rationale behind it. Give the right amount of facts.
  • Avoid stereotyping. This Chinese person may not have the same problem as another Chinese person, for instance. “Every [interaction] is new – [treat it] like it’s your very first one.”
    Jul 1, 2014
    Chen Jingting
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