Article

Leveraging Networks for Public Service Delivery

Are we on the brink of a golden age of public service delivery, rich in cross-sector partnerships and collaborative networks?

Date Posted

1 Apr 2008

Issue

Issue 4, 14 Apr 2008

NEW CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES IN A MASSIVELY CONNECTED WORLD

While technology has enabled many advances in service delivery today, technological progress is also driving rapid change in a massively-connected world, presenting new challenges and opportunities for public service delivery.

The Singapore Government has had to tackle challenges associated with the rising expectations of a more affluent population. The development and proliferation of Web technologies has also led to a more informed citizenry which compares the quality of services provided by the Government to the best available services offered by the private sector worldwide. Every e-store has to match what Amazon can offer, and every search engine is measured against Google’s capabilities.

In fairness, the Singapore Government has been a leader in the infocomm technology revolution. Our public service delivery network has moved progressively up the curve of network maturity (Figure 1) over the last two decades. Today, we are at a transitional stage of network development in public service.

EVOLUTION OF PUBLIC SERVICE DELIVERY NETWORK–A MODEL

 

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During the initial waves of computerisation in the 1980s and 1990s, the Public Service made aggressive attempts to adopt the new technologies for both internal and external efficiency gains. About 1,600 online public services were introduced to provide round-the-clock access to government information and transactions, some to much acclaim.

However, despite being a significant step forward in terms of accessibility and convenience, this initial wave of computerisation did not change the fundamental approach to public service delivery; with some exceptions, these e-services were largely electronic equivalents of existing counter or form-based services already provided by respective agencies.

Nevertheless, several agencies have embraced the possibilities of service delivery at the Whole-of-Government (WOG) level. Cross-agency initiatives, such as the Online Business Licensing Service (OBLS) and integrated various services from different agencies have already dramatically improved entire business processes for the public. However, such efforts have been the exception rather than the norm for electronic public service delivery to date.

Going forward, it is clear that Singapore will face increasingly complex and multi-faceted issues, such as an ageing population, that cut across the domains of different agencies and are beyond the scope and capabilities of any single agency to resolve.

In the past, we were only able to effectively address individual aspects of multi-faceted issues. Today, however, “while hierarchies are not vanishing, profound changes in the nature of technology, demographics, and the global economy are giving rise to powerful new models of production based on community, collaboration and self-organisation rather than on hierarchy and control”.1 The present challenge is whether we can apply these new models of production to provide new solutions, by leveraging the power of networks of participants.

WHAT IS LEVERAGING NETWORKS?

Google Maps is just one of many examples of how organisations at the forefront are leveraging the immense potential of networks. Wikipedia, with more than two million articles2 as of end 2007, taps on the collective contributions of thousands of Internet users. The Tactical Ground Reporting System3 is revolutionising the war in Iraq, providing a large data trove of information that army personnel can retrieve and contribute to—valuable information that is saving lives.

What do these examples have in common?

Think Platform: They do not seek to solve problems directly, but rather, leverage the network’s latent ability to solve problems by tapping on the imagination of many. Instead of trying to provide a customised product for every conceivable purpose, Google transformed Google Maps from a product into a platform to provide the answers to the myriad needs of millions of users.

Empower Players: Users in the network are empowered by these platforms to transform their innovative ideas into reality. From passive users, they can now become active contributors. With empowerment come creative solutions and boundless possibilities.

Inspire Participation: Wikipedia broke the monopoly that traditional encyclopaedias have on authoritative knowledge, by empowering participants to contribute (or verify) detailed information on topics they are passionate and knowledgeable about. It gave ordinary users a reason to participate in a shared project towards a larger goal.

Imagine this concept applied to public service delivery. By leveraging networks, we can tap on the resourcefulness and creativity of the public and private sectors as well as individuals to improve upon existing public services or delivering new ones.4 We can harness the “power of us” by trading ideas, best practices and knowledge within the network, and we can bring out new ways of thinking and innovation to benefit all. This could lead to new levels of public service delivery, made possible by the very networks that we are serving. Leveraging networks is, in short, a new approach to problem-solving public issues.

Tackling the challenges that public service delivery will face by leveraging networks is about turning these challenges on their heads, and transforming them into opportunities for people to innovate and develop new ideas. It is about harnessing the ideas of the people, and allowing these people to realise their ideas. We need to start thinking about how to leverage networks, both within and outside of the Government.

LEVERAGING INTERNAL NETWORKS—INTEGRATED GOVERNMENT

The first step is to start from within by developing a truly integrated government to elevate the public service in terms of its network maturity (Figure 1). An integrated government achieves two goals for public service: a more holistic understanding of the different areas of constituents’ needs; and better capabilities and coordination among agencies to deliver cross-agency services. There are three main building blocks:

Create an Environment for Agencies to Work Together: An integrated government is about agencies working together. However, this does not come naturally as the concept of integrated government is counter-intuitive to agencies which have been operating in silos traditionally. Some of these structural impediments can be overcome by providing funding support where it is most needed, and by promoting shared systems and greater sharing of information. For instance, the SOEasy project will provide a robust, connected and agile infocomm environment for Singapore’s public officers to work together as One Government, while the iPower Intranet will empower public officers to share ideas and collaborate with each other more spontaneously.

Advance Leading Ideas: To integrate government, we need to develop new processes to work across boundaries. These new processes should either increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our public services through multi-agency collaborations, or address gaps in the Government’s capabilities. In Singapore, regular multi-agency platforms such as the iGov Council and Social Forum are becoming important generators of new ideas. Other initiatives arise from dialogues with ministries during the budget cycle and by studying the best practices of other countries and organisations.

Turn Ideas into Reality: To realise real benefit, we need to encourage agencies with the right expertise to lead and implement good cross-agency ideas. For this to happen, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) is developing a “Centre of Expertise” framework. For each idea, MOF aims to encourage a natural agency to take up a leadership role. These lead agencies will be recognised as Centres of Expertise, and will coordinate with different agencies to provide the expertise necessary to implement the ideas. If required, MOF will be a strategic partner in execution, helping to bring agencies together by providing a Whole-of-Government perspective.


New processes should either increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our public services through multiagency collaborations, or address gaps in the Government’s capabilities.

For instance, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and MOF are working hand-in-hand to bring about the next wave of e-payment innovation and adoption. Each party brings their respective competencies to the table: MAS as the financial regulator, IDA as the technical expert and MOF as the catalyst for innovative public services. Together, the three agencies hope to spur the next wave of payment innovation, such as allowing Singapore residents to pay for purchases with their hand phones, unlocking new opportunities for public services.


In the new world of Wikipedia, citizens are not satisfied with just being consumers—they can and want to participate and have a say.

By achieving an integrated Government, we build up our internal networks of resources and ideas, as well as improve our ability to leverage these networks to develop and deliver new public services.

LEVERAGING EXTERNAL NETWORKS—CO-CREATION WITH THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Leveraging internal government networks is just the beginning. While our current efforts focus on empowering agencies and public officers to leverage internal networks, we can reap the full benefits of leveraging networks only if we extend the concept beyond the Government. This will propel us towards Stage 4 of the maturity framework (Figure 1).

The next milestone will be to look outside of the public sector to harness the potential of a much wider network. Proctor & Gamble’s success with the Connect and Develop programme offers us a glimpse of the possibilities. As BusinessWeek described it, P&G’s method was to “Embrace the collective brains of the world. Make it a goal that 50% of the company’s new products come from outside P&G’s labs. Tap networks of inventors, scientists, and suppliers for new products that can be developed in-house.”5

This approach stands in stark contrast to the present, where the Government is used to being in the driver seat and providing all the answers. In the world of Britannica, our Government can afford to be the dominant supplier of information and services; but in the new world of Wikipedia, citizens are not satisfied with just being consumers—they can and want to participate and have a say. It is essential that the Government look for ways to actively involve the private sector and individuals in creating and delivering new public services.

This concept of a government leveraging on a wider network to develop new ideas well beyond its in-house capabilities has been put to good use elsewhere. The United States Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) regularly engages the defence industry network. DARPA explains the challenges they face in specific technological areas to interested organisations who then embark on their own research and development projects—the fruits of the research are incorporated into the US military where suitable.

In the long term, we envision a government that, instead of being the sole provider of public services, sets and referees the rules in an ecosystem which allows new participants, whether private sector or individuals, to freely innovate and create value-added services on top of or even superseding existing public services. Government services and data will be made available, where possible, in a new way so that businesses and individuals can re-use them to develop innovative “mash-ups”. This cross-sectoral network of “public-private governance” will be empowered to deploy new value-added services to the public, generate ideas on how to solve complex issues and implement creative solutions.


How successful we are at leveraging networks will depend on how well we can encourage spontaneous and unplanned “partnerships” to proliferate, and nurture a culture that can tap on it.

However, this path is not without its challenges. We will need to grapple with issues that include information security, accountability and privacy. How do we prevent unauthorised access and usage? How do we ensure that businesses and individuals use government systems and data responsibly? And how do we balance all these against issues such as privacy and economic viability? These are complex issues that will pose immense challenges. However, the potential rewards are so great that we cannot afford to ignore the possibilities.

A NEW PARADIGM

As we shift towards a new paradigm of leveraging networks, there are new questions that need to be asked: How can we create these networks? How can we leverage them to deliver maximum value to our constituents? How successful we are at leveraging networks will depend on how well we can encourage spontaneous and unplanned “partnerships” to proliferate, and nurture a culture that can tap on it. It is both chaotic—in the sense it is unpredictable and spontaneous—yet orderly, in that it is self-organising and constructive. That is the beauty behind leveraging networks.

For this paradigm shift to succeed, the public sector needs to recognise the remarkable potential behind the ability to harness the collective knowledge and expertise of various players in a network, both internally within the public sector, and externally in the private sector and the people we are serving. However, driving change towards this new wave is much more difficult than in earlier waves of public service change, as it requires a shift in fundamental government culture and values: from “mandate” to “collaborate”, from “my turf, my responsibility” to “let’s work together”, and from “service delivery” to “value creation”. With clear commitment and a persistent call for change, this new era of public service can happen, with benefits and opportunities for all.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Intern Nicholas Mai and Associates Tang Tee Sing and Yeo Yaw Shin are with the Managing for Excellence (MFE) Directorate in the Ministry of Finance, Singapore. The MFE Directorate seeks to bring about an integrated Government that strives for high performance and advances new possibilities.


NOTES

  1. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, 2006
  2. Wikipedia: Size of Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Wikipedia:Size_of_Wikipedia
  3. Talbot, David, “A Technology Surges”, Technology Review, March/April 2008, http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/20202/?a=f
  4. While leveraging networks call for partnerships, it is fundamentally different from the cross-agency initiatives and public-private partnerships that we are familiar with. Instead of bringing a few nodes in the network together, it is about tapping on the collective resources of all the nodes in the network. It is about constructing a business model that allows unplanned but effective partnerships to take place spontaneously across the network.
  5. “The World’s Most Innovative Companies”, BusinessWeek, 24 April 2006, http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_17/b3981401.htm

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