"We could cheer on each other's achievements a lot more"

The Public Service abounds with innovation – public officers just don’t share enough about them, says Ms Elaine Ng, CEO of the National Library Board.

Ms Elaine Ng, the National Library Board (NLB) CEO, is all cool composure during our chat at library@orchard. But she gets fired up talking about innovation in the Public Service. Her opinion is that the Public Service innovates “every day”. Public officers just don’t shout about it, she says.

One instance is the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, which the NLB learns from when designing its own services. “I consider them hugely innovative for making something as complex and potentially unhappy as filing your taxes so fuss-free and intuitive.”

Ms Ng is also intrigued by our public hospitals’ experiments in shaping user behaviour through design. During a learning journey trip to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, she noticed signs on tables that read, “This is a self-cleaning table. Please clean up after yourself.” – and that people actually did.

The hospital also set up charging stations to provide power points, a move the public libraries have adopted. “It organises patron behaviour and helps reduce friction,” explains Ms Ng.

Volunteer-run libraries

As for the NLB’s own innovations, Ms Ng is proudest of library@chinatown’s volunteer-run model. She reckons it was the willingness of NLB staff to try new things that helped library@chinatown top the 2014 NLB-wide customer satisfaction survey. The branch received a score of 4.59 (out of 5), compared with the overall average score of 4.39, a testament to the NLB’s volunteer management efforts.

The formula has since been applied to the Pasir Ris Public Library, which reopened last November with a mezzanine area managed by teenage volunteers.

“People aren’t as demanding with volunteers,” says Ms Ng. “When you approach staff, you have certain expectations about service, but when it’s a volunteer... especially an elderly person, people go, ‘Uncle, can you help...?’”

Lessons in leadership

A mother of two teenage boys, Ms Ng credits understanding bosses for helping her juggle work and family.

But she stresses that “a boss can only understand if you share your concerns with them”, adding that she used to tell her supervisors she might go into work late as she had to first drop off her kids at childcare. “We can afford to open up and give bosses a chance to reach out... Let’s not always be so paiseh to share!”

She adds that when her children grew up, she returned the favour to younger colleagues. “I stood in for them because they stood in for me at one point. Let’s pass it on and be understanding to others.”

Till today, she sees her first boss, Mr Lim Siong Guan (former Head of Civil Service), as a paragon of leadership. Mr Lim was a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence where Ms Ng started her public service career. He constantly spoke about having a “moral compass” and readily mentored junior staff .

“I was an eager beaver then, a brash young thing. He told me to listen to senior staff – not necessarily those with titles, but those who had been around for a long time as they would have lessons to impart.”

A boss can only understand if you share your concerns with them… We can afford to open up and give bosses a chance to reach out.

A trying time for the NLB in 2014 proved to be an opportunity for leadership. Following a public outcry over the NLB’s decision to remove two children’s books with themes of non-traditional families, the books were eventually moved to the adults’ section. Upon reflection, Ms Ng feels that the NLB’s effort to keep the children’s collection age-appropriate while retaining access for parents who might want to discuss those books with their children could have been made clearer.

The episode also fortified her belief in looking after staff and the need for robust internal communication. Ms Ng shares that she has small group tea sessions with NLB officers of all levels. These sessions are used to communicate organisation priorities and changes, as well as for management to listen and act on officers’ feedback. As NLB staff are spread across many locations, they may not always know what is happening in the libraries. During the book incident, for example, whenever one library received well-wishes from the public, that support could have been shared across the board to keep spirits up.

In the Public Service too, “we could cheer on each other’s achievements a lot more,” she observes, “and we need that cheerleading spirit when things are difficult.”


Whither, SG100?

Ms Ng is surprisingly sanguine about the future of libraries despite the challenges facing them. Statistics from the National Arts Council show that the number of people visiting libraries has been falling since 2009. Physical loans are also starting to dip.

However, Ms Ng points to the growth of electronic loans. Libraries also offer that irreplaceable experience of “serendipitous discovery” – when you chance upon books you would never have thought of while browsing shelves. In contrast, “a website or device can only recommend books based on what you have already read.”

More worrying, though, is how we are preserving information in this digital age, says Ms Ng, referring to the National Archives of Singapore, which is part of the NLB.

Noting how public officers referenced photographs and manuscripts for the SG50 celebrations, she wonders, “What will people refer to when we celebrate SG100?

“Last time, if you wanted to keep government records, you printed them out and put them in a file. Now, everything is on email.”

Electronic formats also become obsolete, causing information loss. “What concerns me is whether we have done enough to make people understand the importance of collecting, documenting and preserving things of national memory.”

A first step to addressing this would be to encourage public officers to deposit government records with the archives, she says.

Libraries of the future

Meanwhile, libraries will be around “at SG100, 200 and even 300”, Ms Ng declares.

The secret of their longevity? It’s that libraries are not just about books. If anything, they’re about communities. Spaces for people to meet, share ideas, and form memories.

“People remember coming to the library with their parents, studying here as teenagers, looking for a book as an adult, bringing their children here, and coming back as a senior,” says Ms Ng. “We’re part of their lives.”


What’s in your cuppa?
Hot Milo

Where do you take it?
I usually take a Milo 3-in-1. Otherwise, the Milo at Hanis Cafe & Bakery (at the National Library) is pretty good.

    Jan 5, 2016
    Jeanne Tai
    Norman Ng
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