DPM Teo: Singapore’s Public Service must be in touch, in tune and in time

Teo Chee Hean
Teo Chee Hean, “Singapore’s Public Service must be in touch, in tune and in time”

The public sector has to adapt as Singapore transforms its economy amid global uncertainties, and one way to do so is to stay in touch with the ground to better address citizens’ changing needs, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. Civil servants must also work closely in a coordinated manner across different agencies, and equip themselves with skills to constantly innovate, he added in a speech at the Excellence in Public Service Awards Ceremony on Friday. Below is an excerpt from the speech by Mr Teo, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service.

Singapore is at an important stage of our development. On the international front, there are global uncertainties due to slower growth in the major economies, with greater nationalism and protectionism rearing their heads. At home, we are embarking on a new phase of economic and social development.

We are taking steps to position Singapore for productivity- and innovation-led economic growth.

The Public Service also needs to evolve and adapt, innovate and create, so as to deliver greater value to our citizens. Our agencies can adapt the best practices of other countries innovatively to our own circumstances. But increasingly, we have to anticipate change, embrace innovation and be prepared to deploy new solutions.

As our external environment evolves, the Public Service also needs to accelerate our pace of innovation. I would like to speak on three areas in which the Public Service can pursue more innovation.

First, being in touch with the ground, tapping citizens’ perspectives to find new ways forward. Second, being in tune with one another, partnering other agencies to deliver integrated solutions. Third, being in time for the future, ensuring that the Public Service is equipped with the capabilities to continue innovating for the future.

First, innovation through being in touch with the ground. In recent years, the Public Service has stepped up the level of public engagement in formulating policies and implementing programmes. Our citizens’ needs have become more diverse. Public engagement goes beyond conducting engagement sessions to solicit feedback. The test is to understand and internalise citizens’ needs, and design policies and programmes with better outcomes.

Take, for instance, the issue of waiting times at Specialist Outpatient Clinics. As we have more seniors, the demand for medical services grows. We can expect more seniors to seek medical attention. How can we adjust and improve our operations to provide better scheduling, and service our patients in a more timely manner? We can think of more creative solutions, especially with what modern mobile technology offers.

This was what SingHealth did. It enhanced its Health Buddy app for patients to register their appointments remotely, and get queue numbers so that they can show up just in time at the clinic. By making this shift, each patient can save up to 30 minutes of waiting time at the clinic.

Putting citizens at the centre of the design process will thus help us provide more convenient and timely services. I am confident that our public officers will continue to deliver more citizen-centric services for Singaporeans. The innovation in public engagement also involves tapping on the passion of individuals and communities to unlock new possibilities. Many Singaporeans are keen to contribute their ideas, time and energy to make policies work better.

For instance, when the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) mooted a car-free zone along Liang Seah Street, Mr Tan Kay Toh, who owns shophouses there, came forward and partnered the URA to hold informal dialogues with other stakeholders. He also set up a website (www.liangseahstreet.sg) to keep those interested posted on the progress.

The trial increased the footfall to the area and also brought higher earnings for F&B operators. This arrangement has now been made permanent. We hope that more Singaporeans will step forward and partner our agencies to unlock new possibilities.

Second, innovating by being in tune with one another. To address our complex challenges today, we need to work more closely as One Public Service and use that mindset to develop better inter-agency, system-level solutions.

At the organisation level, stronger partnerships will help to address issues that cut across the responsibilities of different agencies. It is a good sign that more agencies are coming together to implement joint solutions.

For instance, 11 agencies worked on the nationwide 3D geospatial map of our infrastructure, road and tunnel network. This 3D map now provides the foundation for more agencies to visualise and develop better and more integrated solutions. These range from ground-level facilities that are important to residents, such as walkways and shelters, and system-level plans such as which rooftops are best for deploying solar panels.

Third, making sure that the Public Service is in time for the future by training our officers with future-ready skills, so that our agencies can constantly innovate. We will accelerate the deployment of smart technologies to provide better and more timely service.

The new Smart Nation and Digital Government Group will help drive digital transformation for the Public Service and focus on key enablers such as the national digital identity system and e-payments. Many agencies have also begun to use Virtual Assistant technology, such as “Ask Jamie” and chatbots on Facebook, to provide more timely responses that are accessible to the public 24/7.

Being in time for the future also requires us to rethink our operating assumptions and policy approach. An example is how Singapore Customs shifted its focus from enforcing payment of duties, and Goods and Services Tax to providing convenient services for travellers to fulfil their tax obligations upon return.

Travellers and returning residents can now declare their taxable goods and make payments through a simple app, even before reaching Singapore. Such travellers no longer need to make a detour to the Customs Tax Payment office, saving time when they arrive in Singapore.

Leadership is key to fostering an innovative culture. We need good leaders at every level. In particular, our middle managers, who have their fingers on the pulse and a feel for the ground, are best positioned to try new ideas and approaches. Our middle managers can build a culture of innovation within their teams, and inspire and empower officers to do their best.

We have achieved much as a country because we have big dreams, and work hard and creatively to make our dreams come true. Our pioneer public officers played a key role in developing and implementing bold policies and solutions to service Singaporeans, and to build modern Singapore. Nothing daunted them. We must be even more in touch with the ground, in tune with one another, and in time for the future to build our future together. I encourage all our officers to play a part, be prepared to innovate, try new ideas and make things happen.

DAM Teo

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