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How Singapore is harnessing design to transform government services

McKinsey 09 Oct 2019 12:00

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Singapore’s economic transformation from third world to first world since gaining its independence in 1965 is a well-known story of how stable governance and entrepreneurial thinking has fueled economic prosperity for this small nation. What is lesser-known is the extent to which the Singapore government has embraced design in its strategies to improve citizens’ lives.

As Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in 2018:

“At the national level, design is . . . a core element of our nation-building. Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself. Somebody thought about it, made it happen. Not our economic growth, not our international standing, not our multiracial harmony, not even our nationhood. Nothing was by chance.” 1 1. Lee Hsien Loong, “A better nation by design,” Prime Minister’s Office Singapore, April 5, 2018, pmo.gov.sg.

Singapore has historically designed policies and services around citizen behaviors to effect long-term desired outcomes, from pension fund contributions to racial integration in public housing to road pricing. 2 2. Donald Low, Behavioural Economics and Policy Design: Examples from Singapore, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2011. While these examples were not labeled as “design” then, they make up a backdrop for Singapore’s continuing citizen-centric approach.

Singapore is not unique in this movement. Globally, the scope for design in government has increased, driven by pressing population concerns and maturing technologies. For instance, in Europe and the United States, cross-functional teams typically operate at the intersection of design, digital, and data to innovate policies and processes and to deliver public good more effectively. Examples include the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service and US Digital Service.

People often experience public services as discrete touchpoints as a result of agencies specializing in different functions. For example, bringing a baby into the world requires parents to interact with multiple organizations—such as medical service providers, financial institutions, social benefit agencies, and birth registration departments—in a short period of time. This makes an already-stressful phase in parents’ lives even more stressful. What if a more connected, seamless journey could be designed to deliver the right information, channels, and support at the right time to increase citizens’ peace of mind during life’s critical transitions?

Since the release of the Moments of Life app in June 2018, it has had more than 32,000 downloads. 4 4. Alexander Lau, “Innovating Singapore: One lab’s journey to change government for good,” Apolitical, June 7, 2019, apolitical.co. For the next release, the GovTech team aims to target the other end of life: aging and caregiving. The Moments of Life overarching goal is to provide a suite of digital solutions for citizen well-being along critical moments “from cradle to grave.”

In a 2016 survey of people with disabilities by Singapore’s National Council of Social Services (NCSS), 62 percent of respondents said that they felt neither included in society nor given opportunities to reach their potential. The study found that Singapore’s people with disabilities continued to grapple with a host of difficulties in accessing public infrastructure, housing, caregiver support, assistive technologies, and sports facilities. They also continued to face challenges in the workplace as well as social stigma and bullying. 5 5. Issues faced by people with disabilities in Singapore, NVPC, November 2017, nvpc.org. That led NCSS, along with DesignSingapore Council, to put together a team to identify opportunities to improve inclusion and quality of life for people with disabilities.

Various community partners adapted these ideas during implementation. The Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore adapted the Box of Joy concept at its Day Activity Centres as a six-month program of rotating weekend-resource kits for parents of children with cognitive needs. The kits used an engaging format to extend what these children learned during the week. The Social Combinator took the form of a hiring program by MINDS in partnership with three local businesses specializing in arts and crafts, drycleaning services, and hydroponics supplies. The program helped place 21 people with disabilities in jobs as full-time employees. The pilot program drove rich insights on how to support the different needs of employers that are looking to hire people with disabilities.

Product development in the public sector tends to be slow, given legacy interdependencies and alignment needed for system changes and to mitigate public risks. Parking.sg, a mobile app for Singapore parking payments by GovTech, Housing & Development Board, and Urban Redevelopment Authority, demonstrates how agencies can adopt an agile, entrepreneurial culture in their way of working and to create cutting-edge digital products at the rapid pace usually attributed to start-ups and technology companies. Released in 2017, Parking.sg aimed to reduce the use of paper-based parking coupons in public parking lots. By digitizing this highly manual process, the goal was to save motorists time, increase visibility of parking spot availability across the island, and enable per-minute charging based on actual use.

Parking.sg is a case of agile methodology being possible within government agencies. From the engineering and hardware standpoints, the product was built on standard design and software development practices. These included:

Much like entrepreneurs responding to landscape developments, the team took the opportunity to scale its erstwhile prototype in response to regulatory changes. When a pricing review necessitated that motorists switch to new parking coupon denominations, the resulting inconvenience of switching created impetus for the agencies involved to provide resources for the team to take Parking.sg to market for public use.

The Public Service Division, Singapore—a unit of the prime minister’s office that oversees human resources for around 145,000 officers across 16 ministries and 60 statutory boards—has made building an agile, entrepreneurial public service an express goal in its broader transformation agenda. To this end, it set up a human-centered innovation lab in 2013 as a centralized resource to embed design-driven methodologies into policy, service delivery, and operational areas across various line agencies’ needs; these methods include ethnographic research, service design, rapid prototyping, and iteration with stakeholders. The unit has applied human-centered design to areas such as housing, social assistance, population, talent and workforce, and procurement and financial data analysis by key monetary bodies. From these experiences, it has codified a common Public Service Innovation framework of how to apply human-centered design methods flexibly to suit the constraints of varying setups of the sponsoring host agencies.

Singapore’s Public Service Division is also transforming the talent makeup and skills mix across agencies to achieve the vision of an agile and entrepreneurial workforce. It is now commonplace to see specialist roles, such as product design, product management, software engineering, data analytics, and cybersecurity in government organizations. This reflects the future makeup of competencies needed by public officers beyond the traditional economics, managerial, and sector-based skills.

Two core beliefs are fundamental to design methodology. The first is that an understanding of end-user needs is critical in identifying the right solutions. The second is that solutions are more robust when they have been co-created with stakeholders. These tenets align with the Singapore government’s intent to adopt a more consultative approach to policy making and national strategy formulation.

To signal citizen engagement as an ongoing top priority, the government conducted a series of national conversations in 2012 and 2013 to gather citizen sentiment across a spectrum of topics. More than 47,000 Singaporeans participated in two phases of engagement. The first phase consisted of open-ended, exploratory conversations that then led to constructive conversations in the second phase based on the distilled themes. Called “Our Singapore Conversations,” the exercise inspired several key national policy initiatives. These include the Pioneer Generation Package, a series of benefits for the generation that built Singapore’s economy; MediShield Life, an expansion of the national insurance program; and revisions to primary school leaving examinations which now use wider scoring bands in a bid to shift the culture of education. Beyond this, the exercise demonstrated how a bottom-up approach that goes beyond traditional outreach platforms can significantly increase citizen trust.

It is important to create an environment to support bottom-up innovations by self-organizing teams in government. Accordingly, various funding mechanisms have emerged to unlock resource and cost-sharing across different bodies in the public service. For example, the Citizen Engagement Seed Fund funded 17 projects and involved participatory discussions with some 4,500 citizens from 2016 to 2018. The Public Service Innovation Challenge, since its launch in 2017, has enabled around 305 officers to secure seed funding of up to $70,000 for their experiments, reducing the need for complicated approval processes. From this funding pool have come several useful solutions, such as a form builder for government websites to positively reduce the inefficient use of paper forms.

As is clear from the cases described in this article, Singapore has gone “full speed ahead” in applying design to innovating government services and improving end-user experiences. We believe that many of Singapore government’s attributes and challenges apply to other countries’ public agencies similarly aiming to support rapidly aging populations, cohere culturally diverse populations, make the most of constrained resources, and remain regionally competitive. Thus we hope that this snapshot of Singapore’s experience offers a useful, inspirational perspective on the possible approaches that other global governments can take to harness design, as they shape more inclusive, responsive policies and solutions in their specific contexts.

About the author(s)

Vidhya Ganesan is a partner, Yishan Lam is an associate design director, and Diaan-Yi Lin is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Singapore office.

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