Singapore made innovation go viral in its public service

It taught public officers and teams to be innovative, and reward those who succeed

From a robotic police force and facial recognition ID to free skills training for all public servants, Singapore is at the forefront of government innovation.

Much of its success can be attributed to government prioritising the spread of innovation practices throughout its 145,000-person public service. The Public Service Division (PSD) — the central human resources agency under the Prime Minister’s Office — has a Transformation Office and Innovation Lab that is charged with building innovation capabilities and mindsets across the entire public service.

“Our job is to inculcate a culture of innovation for everyone in Singapore’s government,” said Alexander Lau, principal design lead at the PSD’s innovation lab. “We’re doing this by rethinking the innovation process.”

Three steps to innovation

The “rethink” involves a framework, designed and developed by Lau over the past four years, that blends principles from a range of fields, including design thinking, behavioural insights, and organisational development. This framework, as shown below, guides innovation across the public service.

“We’ve removed the titles of all these methods and pooled the key principles together in a framework that agencies follow when innovating,” said Lau. This, he said has created a culture of entrepreneurship and ownership in government that gives individual public officers the confidence to experiment.

The Transformation Office’s Innovation Lab spreads this culture of innovation in three key ways.

First, it focuses on teaching individual public officers to be innovative through training sessions and “makeathons” — similar to hackathons, but less tech-focused — where participants learn to use the framework in a hands-on way. In the makeathons, public officers collaborate with citizens to identify challenges, user-test and come up with solutions.

One of the ideas to come out of the makeathons was a government marketplace for professional skills, where different agencies could “rent” a public servant’s talents — their skill at event hosting or graphic design, for example.

“An agency can transform simply by adopting an innovative mindset”

“The idea was that people with skills may not be distributed evenly through the public service. We can connect agencies together so they can share these skills,” said Lau.

Second, the Transformation Office holds the Public Sector Transformation Awards, an annual innovation competition designed to create a culture of recognition and celebration around public sector inventiveness.

And finally, the office coaches agencies as they deliver innovation projects.

Recently, it helped teams from the Monetary Authority of Singapore work through problems such as how to fix its procurement process — a “painful, bureaucratic” system both for the agency and contractors, said Lau — and how to collect data from financial institutions more efficiently.

“We wanted to show how the agency can transform, simply by adopting an innovative mindset,” said Lau.

Using apps to bundle citizen services

But the PSD’s Innovation Lab doesn’t just encourage departments to adopt innovation techniques — it also helps them collaborate to deliver better public services.

One of the PSD’s biggest accomplishments is its work on on the Moments of Life initiative, one of Singapore’s five Smart Nation Strategic National Projects. The first Moments of Life product is the MOL (Families) app, which supports families with children aged 6 and below by bundling streamlined services and information on a single digital platform.

“It’s about unravelling and rebuilding government services, to make them easier for citizens to use,” said Lau.

On the app, parents can register their child’s birth and apply for the baby bonus scheme in a single application, search and register interest for preschools and view their child’s upcoming medical appointments and immunisation records. Previously, parents would have to go to different agencies to access these services.

“Everyone is running their own processes and they don’t talk to each other”

The MOL (Families) app is overseen by the Moments of Life Programme Office (MOLPO), and is an interagency project that saw representatives from 15 agencies such as Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) and Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) working collectively to deliver services around the needs of the citizen.

PSD’s Innovation Lab worked with MOLPO andGovTech agency and 13 different cross-agency systems to develop the app — which was no easy task.  To overcome this challenge, the Innovation Lab worked with MOLPO to facilitate communication between different agencies and guide them through the development process, while bearing in mind each department’s unique policy lifecycles and backend processes.

They carried out deep ethnographic user research, using narratives from citizens, to steer the Moments of Life’s uses and design. Since its launch, the app has been downloaded over 13,000 times.

Following the success of first Moments of Life product, the Transformation Office’s innovation lab continues to collaborate across public agencies to rethink the delivery of services that citizens need at different points of their life. “We have started to think, ‘What would a citizen’s journey look like from cradle to grave?’”

Collaborations like the app — which required 15 different agencies, all with competing agendas and remits, to work together — are rare in the public sector. But alongside encouraging new ways of thinking and risk-taking, PSD’s Innovation Lab believes cross-departmental collaboration is key to unlocking greater innovation and productivity in government. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Pexels)


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