Let's Make it Happen

A combination of “make” and “marathon,” a makeathon brings people with diverse skills together to solve a common problem. At the recent Public Service Conference 2016, Mr Alexander Lau and his team from the Public Service Division helped officers from some 20 agencies build prototypes of policies to make work in the Public Service more vibrant and productive. He explains why makeathons – which are often messy and highly charged – are the perfect platform for encouraging openness and change. The team is currently planning another makeathon for the ExCEL Convention in November; look out for it!


My work at PSD involves promoting the use of design thinking tools by public agencies. But the tools themselves aren’t the point; rather, our goal is really to spur officers to change their mindsets – to challenge their assumptions and help them become more empathetic and open to collaboration. We want officers to know that innovation can be applied to our day-to-day work, whether it involves serving customers, managing operations or designing policies. Once officers understand this, we can see the change almost immediately.


Keep it Tight, Keep it Simple

We only had about five weeks to plan the makeathon for the Public Service Conference, so we had to hit the ground running. What we did was to make the makeathon part of the Public Service Innovation Challenge. This allowed it to become a platform for engaging officers and starting the ideation process.

Makeathons bring people together very easily, in a short, concentrated session, which facilitates cross-agency work. The 51 makeathon participants all volunteered to be involved, and they represented almost 20 agencies and a variety of vocations, from policymakers to frontline staff.


The first day of the makeathon was intense. We didn’t want the participants to come in “cold,” especially since the event was only two days long, because then they might bring such a range of ideas that it would be difficult to make them coherent. That’s why we gave participants a sense of what to expect by providing them with well-researched background materials and lessons in design thinking. We also encouraged the participants to study the problem and discuss what “vibrant” and “productive” meant to them. The participants then formed their own teams in order to create prototypes.


The thing about makeathons is that they are uncomfortable and messy – they aremeant to be. Makeathons are intense so participants don’t have time to over-think an issue or second-guess themselves. With many public officers coming together for the Conference, the makeathon was also a good opportunity for participants to seek expert advice and get feedback on their ideas very quickly. That’s the beauty of the process – letting other people help you refine your ideas, and getting responses from different perspectives, so that your prototyping can be richer.


A Culture of Sharing Ideas

The participants spent the second day of the makeathon refining their ideas. Working against the clock, they took on the feedback of other public officers before presenting their pitches to the panel of judges, which was led by Mr Peter Ong, Head of Civil Service. 

At the end of the makeathon, three proposals were shortlisted for further development. These focused on:

  • Sharing human resources and setting up structures to allow agencies to tap on the specific skillsets of officers within the Public Service;
  • Sharing space more efficiently, so that agencies can make use of facilities and physical resources that aren’t being used by the agencies that own them; and
  • Effective telecommuting.

At the moment, we’re looking to test these proposals with agencies, and it’s likely that the final solutions won’t be from any individual team, but incorporate aspects from the various proposals. But the more important result of the makeathon was that it demonstrated the support at every level for building a more open and innovative culture. This was our promise to the teams, after all – that they’d have a solid platform to share their ideas.

By building a common problem-solving language and culture across the whole Public Service, it will be much easier to form cross-agency collaborations. This benefits the public because, when the Public Service works more efficiently, it can serve the public better.


Let’s Get Bold

At the Public Service Conference, Ms Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary, PSD, urged us to be even bolder in embracing innovation. At this first makeathon, the participants had perhaps focused more on goals that were achievable in the short-term. But makeathons are meant to be inspirational, and to push people to think out of the box. Hopefully, at future sessions, we’ll see people thinking even bigger, and assuming that anything is possible.

The whole makeathon experience showed me that officers in the Public Service are passionate about creating a better Singapore. The energy was just amazing; once you give people free rein to work on something they really believe in, it’s possible to create great ideas together. The challenge now is to maintain our momentum after the makeathon is over, and keep the fire alive!

Mr Alexander Lau is a Senior Design Lead with PSD's PS21 Office.
    Oct 5, 2016
    Alexander Lau
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