Innovating Singapore: One lab’s journey to change government for good

Opinion: Rethinking how government agencies work together

This article was written by Alexander Lau, Principal Design Lead at the Innovation Lab, Public Service Division, Singapore, and winner in Apolitical’s recent Workforce of the future of work award. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Demystifying innovation tools and partnering agencies to walk their innovation journeys made innovation go viral in Singapore’s Public Service.

Innovation Lab (Lab) started as a small Design Thinking unit of the Public Service Division (PSD) of Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office in 2012.

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Our mandate was to build an empathetic Public Service that puts citizens at the centre of all policy making. We were known to all our collaborators as The Human Experience Lab (THE Lab), even though the name was never officially sanctioned.

It set the tone for our “do first, apologise later” DNA, a critical innovation mindset needed to challenge the public service culture.

Over the years, we picked up new tools and experimented with various modes of engagement, learning from fellow public officers, partner agencies and external consultants.

Hands, heads and hearts

Our original modus operandi was to be a central consulting unit to serve other government agencies.

From 2016, we experimented with flipping the roles around – instead of working on projects for them, we coached agency officers to do the projects themselves. We served as process coaches, mentoring and facilitating project teams as they went about their ethnographic research, sense-making, ideation and prototyping.

To our pleasant surprise, this approach caught on quickly. Project teams were able to move rapidly from user research to idea testing to implementation. There was greater ownership and buy-in by the agencies for the solutions. With less hands-on project involvement, it freed up the Lab to coach more project teams, allowing us to scale our efforts.

In 2017, as part of a renewed mandate to drive Public Sector Transformation, we were officially named Innovation Lab. We began documenting all our learnings into a blended innovation process. The process pulled together principles from Design Thinking, Behavioural Insights, Organisation Development, Business Process Re-engineering, Systems Thinking, Data Analytics and Futures Thinking, etc. into a simple-to-learn, use-what-works approach. We deliberately stripped away all references to the component disciplines, to help people focus on the desired outcomes instead of methodologies.

That same year, Lab got involved in its first major multi-agency project, codenamed “Moments of Life (Families)”. Unknown to us at the time, this project would go on to demonstrate the value of our blended innovation process which engaged the Heads, Hearts and Hands of everyone involved.

Heads: Set up structures

Moments of Life (Families) began as an idea by Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

They felt that besides giving out grants or subsidies, there must be a way for government to improve citizens’ experience at the moment in life when they are starting a family or welcoming a new family member. The idea needed the support and cooperation of many other agencies.

PSD partnered MSF to co-chair an Operations Committee (Ops Comm), and invited senior leaders from 15 agencies into the Ops Comm. The Ops Comm was co-chaired by the Deputy Secretaries of PSD and MSF, and it reported to the Permanent Secretaries of PSD and MSF.

PSD set up a small Programme Office (MOLPO), made up of officers seconded from the participating agencies to manage the project, while Lab was roped in to provide ethnographic research and process guidance.

Hearts: Starting the journey

With the governance and project structures sorted out, the first real challenge came in the form of Change Management. Not every agency in the Ops Comm had the same level of interaction with citizens at that particular “moment” of their lives.

Each agency was already doing well by their service standards benchmarks. What was the compelling reason for them to change what they were doing well to work with other agencies? How could we determine which services to prioritise?

There is no going back to agency silos

When Lab commenced the ethnographic research, data scientists from MSF analysed data from various agencies to identify key citizen archetypes to interview. Every interview was led by Lab, accompanied by an officer from a participating agency of the Ops Comm. Officers across different levels of seniority, up to Deputy Secretaries, participated in the interviews.

Engaging with citizens directly and understanding their real journeys gave officers deep insights that no written reports can articulate, and highlighted agency blind spots. Participating in ethnographic research gave the Ops Comm a strengthened resolve to work together.

Hands: Implementing solutions

From the insights derived, a set of design principles emerged to guide ideation. Some of the findings pointed to the confusion and inconvenience a citizen had to go through with multiple agencies to register the birth of a baby and to apply for related grants and services.

Our solution was to create a one-stop digital service for birth registration, comprising services from 4 key agencies out of the original 15. MOLPO and Lab worked with the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) to conceptualise the first prototype.

With the prototype, Lab facilitated a workshop to bring the four agencies together to work through their business processes. They highlighted key processes and policies that needed to be reviewed, reconfigured or removed. MOLPO and GovTech then followed up with each agency to dive into the details of aligning and integrating business processes and systems. GovTech developed working prototypes, and iterated multiple rounds with real end-users.

Blowing up the silos

The digital service was launched as the “Moments of Life (Families)” app in June 2018. As of May 2019, it has been downloaded by more than 32,000 users and received many positive reviews.

Even with the success of the app, the Ops Comm is still learning about this new way of working as an integrated government service: Who should the main owner of the service be? Who should continue the day-to-day operations and maintenance? What’s next?

What is clear, however, is that there is no going back to agency silos.

Citizens are demanding better and more integrated services, and they are keen to be engaged in the development process. Both political and public service leadership see the value of such an integrated approach, and they have commissioned several other projects to look into how government agencies can work together cohesively to better serve citizens at various moments of their life journeys.

The PSD Innovation Lab intends to continue making its innovation approach go viral in the Singapore Public Service, and support agencies in working across organisational boundaries as One Public Service, with Citizens at the Centre. — Alexander Lau

(Photo credit: Matt Madd//Flickr)

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