Looking after Our Founding Generation
Singapore’s sweeping $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package (PGP),1 announced in early 2014, represents a ground-breaking public initiative to honour a generation — some 450,000 citizens aged 65 or older in 20142 — that had built up the nation in its earliest years, and to provide for their healthcare needs in their senior years. Since consultations and dialogues3 had highlighted clearly that the cost of healthcare was the prime concern of older Singaporeans and their families,4 the Government recognised that senior citizens should be informed about the package so that they can benefit fully from it. It also saw that this would require a comprehensive communication effort beyond the usual media and publicity channels. Singaporeans in the ‘65 and older’ age group have varying levels of education and literacy, and many of them do not access news media regularly. Given the intricate PGP framework, it might be difficult for some seniors to absorb all the relevant policy details that might apply to them. Reaching out to the pioneers and their caregivers to effectively explain the benefits would be critical to the programme’s objective of alleviating long-standing concerns about the cost of healthcare and to provide peace of mind.
Communication Objectives In Sync with Policy Goals
While the PGP is comprehensive, it is also complex in design, affecting different individuals differently depending on their individual circumstances. This made communication a challenge: not only did overall publicity about the PGP need to be simplified, but there was also a need to customise the communication to specific audiences. Many Singaporeans already found the existing healthcare financing and assistance schemes hard to understand.5 The PGP involves multiple tiers of subsidy that depend on the complexity of the presenting disease and whether it would be covered by other existing schemes. Such intricacies are not only difficult to explain but are also dependent on individual contexts.
While the PGP is comprehensive, it is also complex in design, affecting different individuals differently depending on their individual circumstances.
In communicating the PGP, it was imperative to ensure that the key messages were structured and simple to understand, yet meaningful enough to resonate with the different target groups, in order to provide assurance that healthcare costs would become more affordable. To achieve this, the strategy for communicating the PGP incorporated several elements that were rolled out in stages.
Understand the pioneer generation more deeply
At the early stage of implementing the PGP, there was a need to understand how the pioneers felt about the package. Research was conducted to better understand the target audience and to test effectiveness of different communication strategies, as well as aid in the design of publicity materials. For instance, it was found that the elderly preferred to receive something tangible — this led to the Ministry of Health developing a Pioneer Generation Welcome Package, presented in the form of a gift pack with a “Thank You” note penned by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. This reinforced the PGP’s intention of expressing appreciation and respect in a personal way, which would not have been conveyed by conventional mailers.
Raise awareness and offer assurance
The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), which spearheaded above-the-line publicity efforts, realised it could be counter-productive to detail the complex financial technicalities of the PGP from the outset. As such, it decided to introduce the subject to pioneers with the message that the Government cares and will help them to lower their healthcare costs. The initial phase of the communication campaign (from the PGP’s announcement to just before its benefits were implemented) focused not just on thanking and honouring pioneers for their past contributions, but also on raising basic awareness of the package and its assurances about reducing healthcare expenses. To this end, the tagline “More help in healthcare, less worries for life” was created. Although this tagline did not appear on all publicity collaterals, it set the basic tone and guided the development of content across various media platforms (see Figure 1).
As different publicity initiatives were rolled out, the pioneers’ levels of awareness and assurance were monitored to make sure the communication was having its desired effect. Based on a survey of pioneers conducted by MCI and the Ministry of Finance (MOF), awareness of PGP rose significantly from 65% to 95% from July to September 2014 (see Figure 2). The survey also indicated that the majority of pioneers felt assured and recognised, and perceived that the Government was sincere in its effort to honour them.
Figure 1. Message Map for the Pioneer Generation
Source: Ministry of Communications and Information
Figure 2. Pioneer Generation Baseline Survey by the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Finance (MOF), July to September 2014.
Cultivate trust with a personal touch
In August 2014, the Pioneer Generation Office (PGO)6 was established to lead personalised, last-mile communication and outreach. They were tasked to engage individual pioneers and help them to understand the PGP’s complex benefits. Using data analytics, Pioneer Generation Ambassadors (PGAs) were judiciously deployed to visit pioneer households, armed with essential information such as each pioneer’s name, address, age and spoken language. PGAs were matched to pioneers based on the language spoken, and deployed first to precincts with a higher concentration of pioneers with greater intervention needs. It was not uncommon, in the course of these house visits, for pioneers to open up to PGAs about a wide variety of issues of concern to them, ranging from social welfare to municipal matters. These interactions helped to foster trust between the PGAs and the pioneers. Indeed, the PGA scheme could yield useful insights on the local needs of pioneers, volunteer resource management and, more importantly, building social capital through volunteerism.
Innovations in Public Communication
For any public communication campaign to be effective, stakeholders’ understanding of the key issues has to be assessed, so that appropriate follow-up strategies can be formulated to better explain the policies at hand. This is especially vital for target audiences such as the pioneers, who are harder to reach for a variety of reasons, including age, literacy and health factors. Furthermore, the pioneer generation is not a homogenous group: communication cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Consequently, the level of customised content produced by public agencies to communicate PGP was unprecedented. This ranged from modifying the language of the advertisements to tweaking content to suit each target subgroup. For instance, the videos produced depicted familiar scenarios that seniors of specific ethnic and language groups could identify with. Celebrities from the respective ethnic communities were also featured prominently in newspaper advertorials to attract their attention and hold their interest.
For any public communication campaign to be effective, stakeholders’ understanding of the key issues has to be assessed, so that appropriate follow-up strategies can be formulated.
In a further creative effort to address the many concerns of pioneers and their caregivers, an 8-episode Mandarin drama serial—A Blessed Life (吉人天相 jírén tiānxiàng) — was commissioned to portray the different personal, physical and financial issues that pioneers face, along with the corresponding PGP provisions that could help. This programme complemented the door-to-door outreach by PGAs, who then explained the PGP benefits in more detail and addressed any residual information gaps or concerns they might have.
Different ways of presenting a piece of information can evoke different emotional responses. The PGO tested different headlines, images and videos designed to create awareness of PGP’s benefits.Test results showed that the videos in the Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and Chinese dialects resonated best with the pioneers, offering a sense of familiarity and enabling them to better digest the information. Some PGP videos were also tested with the PGAs — considered a group on the ground keenly aware of the pioneers’ preferences — to get a sense of how the messages might be received by their target audience.
Reverting to Vernacular Languages for Communication
Since the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979, government agencies in Singapore have not used dialects to explain public policies.
Enhancing Engagement through Citizen-centred Service
By mobilising nearly 3,000 volunteers as PGAs to facilitate last-mile communication, a new format of citizen engagement, outreach and service was developed. Not only had the PGO and its Ambassadors fulfilled a mandate to communicate the PGP, but they managed, in the process, to connect elderly Singaporeans with relevant agencies to address many of their concerns unrelated to the PGP itself, by acting as:
The PGAs explained the PGP in simple ways to the pioneers and their caregivers to help them appreciate the policy intent and fully utilise the benefits. Wherever possible, the PGAs also often helped to clarify misperceptions which the pioneers had about other government policies.
The PGAs linked the pioneers, especially those who were not socially active, to community activities. During interactions, the PGAs also found out more about the pioneers’ views on policies, service gaps and local needs; these insights were then channelled to policy owners to tighten service delivery and sharpen communication messages.
Many pioneers do not benefit from government schemes because they (or their caregivers) lack awareness and confidence in navigating the system, or have been frustrated by previous attempts. The PGAs assisted such applications or made referrals to the appropriate agencies.
Figure 3. Pioneer Generation Ambassadors: The Roles that Evolved to Fill Gaps.
Source: Pioneer Generation Office
The many efforts made for the PGP communication campaign has led to a deeper overall understanding of how to reach out to elderly Singaporeans and explain government policies to them. It has also generated greater awareness of the role of message-testing in enhancing citizen-centric communication in general. While the various media platforms are instrumental in promoting policy awareness, a significant number of the elderly do not access mainstream media. Here, the campaign has allowed the Government to appreciate the value of face-to-face engagement as part of the last-mile communication efforts vital for policy success. Effective, personalised engagement goes beyond information dissemination to help intended groups understand the relevance of policies to their well-being and how they can optimise the use of policy features given their individual circumstances.
The campaign has allowed the Government to appreciate the value of face-to-face engagement as part of the last-mile communication efforts vital for policy success.
The PGP communication and outreach efforts have improved the Government’s approach to ground engagement; in the process, they have also enhanced public service delivery, strengthened citizen-centricity, and re-ignited community networks. The data and experience gleaned from this important initiative will help future efforts to understand, engage and serve citizens, as well as strengthen the planning of local programmes, and further improve last-mile service delivery and communication.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lai Szu Hao is Lead Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. His research interests are in government communications and public sector governance.
- For more information, refer to www.pioneers.sg.
- The beneficiaries must be born on or before 31 December 1949 and have become citizens on or before 31 December 1986.
- For instance, the Ministry of Health started dialogues on healthcare as part of Our Singapore Conversation as early as February 2013. The dialogue themes were aligned with the overarching messages of accessibility, affordability and quality of care in the Healthcare 2020 Masterplan.
- The perceived inability to cope with rising healthcare costs had been highlighted in public discourse in recent years. A survey conducted by Mindshare (a global media and marketing services company) in 2012 showed that 72% of the 2000-odd respondents agreed with the statement “We cannot afford to get sick these days due to the high medical costs”. (See Joyce Hooi, “Singapore’s Emigration Conundrum”, The Business Times, 6 October 2012).
- The Singapore system may appear complicated when compared with universal healthcare coverage plans in other parts of the world, where no co-payment or a fixed co-payment is required. For instance, in Australia, the co-payment for each visit to the general practitioner is fixed at A$7, capped at A$70 a year for concessional patients.
- The PGO was set up to gather and train a group of volunteers called Pioneer Generation Ambassadors. It is a division under the People’s Association which is a Statutory Board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.