A Tougher Operating Environment
Service delivery in the public sector has never been more challenging. As policies and procedures are introduced or refined to meet the evolving needs of Singaporeans and industry, the administrative burden can become ever more complex, and ever more difficult for those affected to understand and comply with.
At the same time, the public has become much more demanding about the quality of our service delivery, and more critical of the rationale and effectiveness of government policies and processes. They expect more empathy and more personalisation when public agencies address their needs. Customers also tend to be more persistent and often demand that issues be escalated to senior management, even if their requests may be unreasonable.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), being responsible for a broad range of manpower issues that impact businesses and workers, has not been exempt from the challenges facing many public service organisations today. Workload across all MOM touch points has increased substantially, particularly since the 2011 General Elections, which saw a spike in customer volume.1
Re-engineering Service Delivery
Given the increasing number of customer visits, MOM has had to rethink its approach to service delivery. This includes a re-design of its service touch points, including the MOM Services Centre (which handles the public in person) and the MOM Contact Centre (which handles calls and emails from the public), to better cope with the increase in the number and complexity of issues they deal with.
Such service re-design efforts include:
Deploying better educated officers to front-line work to resolve issuesWhile the service desks have traditionally been manned by corporate support officers, MOM has progressively moved the service staff profile to management support officers and management executives with graduate and higher qualifications. They are now better able to handle more complicated issues without having to escalate most cases.
Shifting customers to an appointment-based systemThe Appointment@MOM system has been expanded to cover all advisory and work pass card registration related services. By shifting customers from walk-in to scheduled, appointment-based services, MOM officers can better manage customer flow and devote appropriate attention and time to addressing more complex cases. Customers can also be served at their appointment time and no longer need to wait in queue.
Expanding online servicesSimple, straightforward transactions have been moved to online platforms (e.g. e-services such as Work Permit Online, Employment Pass Online, Check Worker Training Records), freeing up the service counters to handle the issues that require bespoke attention.
Improving iFAQ (Ask MOM) as a viable self-help service channelAsk MOM, the online FAQ portal, allows free text queries and features “Most Asked” questions, “Trending Questions” and FAQs grouped by categories. This self-service channel addresses the most common issues that users may face.
Revamping the MOM Contact CentreTo better manage complex calls and emails, the MOM Contact Centre (MOM CC) now operates on a two-tier model of service. The first tier is fully outsourced and handles simple enquiries. The second tier comprises experienced staff who can handle more difficult cases, with support from MOM officers. This two-tier approach helps MOM allocate its in-house expertise to the cases that need the most attention, and to better manage the overall ,quality of services rendered.
Applying Behavioural Insights to Service Design
Behavioural insights (BI) draw on research in the fields of behavioural economics and psychology to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices. These techniques have been used by governments such as the UK to “nudge” people towards desired outcomes.
Using Smarter Systems
Improvements to service delivery touch points alone will not give MOM the edge it needs to manage its growing service demands. MOM has also developed richer data systems in order to gain a much better view — both at the macro and micro levels — of its interactions with customers.
MOM’s new Customer Relationship Management system, CaRe@Mom, provides a 360-degree view of all customers’ interactions (such as their past and current enquiries, or case-specific matters) with the Ministry. Used extensively by both front-line and back-room case-management officers, it helps MOM to monitor and track interactions with customers, to ensure timely resolution of issues as well as consistency and accuracy in service delivery. CaRe@Mom also supports the reporting and trending of customer issues; it allows for customer surveys, so that MOM can analyse customer satisfaction at the various touch points and gather meaningful feedback for service improvement.
Tapping on the wealth of data it collects, MOM has structured CaRe@Mom to provide useful indication on areas of concern and recurrent issues. Analytical tools (including non-numerical textual analysis) are used to help make sense of customer feedback on specific issues. Officers with a deeper understanding of MOM’s broad range of interrelated business processes have also been able to spot relevant trends or anomalies in the data, leading to more incisive insights and innovative, practical solutions that enhance overall service delivery.
For example, instances of employers failing to pay their foreign worker levies on time may indicate that the firms in question are cash-strapped and may also have difficulty paying salaries to their employees. In such cases, MOM could initiate early intervention measures — for instance, by stopping them from bringing in more foreign workers — hence pre-empting issues which may affect the interests of workers downstream (such as salary payment arrears).
Cultivating Professional Empathy
Before the introduction of a policy mandating a rest day for Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs),1 time was set aside for the policy officers to consult front-line staff on possible service issues that might arise as an outcome of the change.
Experienced customer service officers helped to fine-tune policy FAQs to be more relevant to both FDWs and their employers. Front-line staff were also primed to address public queries after the policy announcement.
Subsequent feedback from the front-line helped MOM plan education and outreach programmes that target gaps in the public’s understanding of the new regulations.
Service Commitment and Service Differentiation
In response to the greater volume of customers and higher public expectations, MOM has more clearly articulated its service commitment. This helps to establish mutual expectations for service behaviour, optimise the use of limited manpower resources and protect staff from abuse.
Tighter Integration Upstream
Policies that are well designed and easily understood enhance public compliance and minimise enquiries through emails and calls downstream at MOM’s service touch points. MOM has therefore sought to integrate insights from front-line service operations with policy formulation upstream. Its One-MOM Policy-to-Operation process is applied ministry-wide, and consists of four stages: Sensing and Agenda Setting, Policy Formulation, Policy Implementation, and Policy Review.
Operating front-line departments and public-facing statutory boards are consulted at an early stage during policy formulation, so that policies can be designed and implemented in an effective, customer-centric manner. Policy and line departments keep these front-line customer-facing departments well-informed ahead of planned policy and procedural changes that have customer impact. This ensures sufficient lead time to plan for the changes, including the crafting of timely and relevant Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to address customer enquiries that may arise after policy announcements. After policy deployment, feedback and insights are gathered from front-line departments and discussed at ministry-wide platforms such as Joint-Ops and Foreign Manpower Planning into Operations meetings. This allows front-line departments to help improve FAQs and suggest ways in which policy or process changes can be better communicated or delivered to aid public understanding and compliance.
Looking to the Future: Opportunities and Challenges
MOM continues to review and explore other initiatives and opportunities for service improvement. Some areas that it is working on include:
- Ensuring that MOM has the right level of staffing, and with the right profile of skills. This is key to effective service delivery. MOM believes that front-line officers are in demand across the rest of the organisation because of their service experience, and have thus not locked them into a specialist track for front-line service. However, in order to meet the demands of increasingly complex public interaction, the challenge is to balance and retain business knowledge and experience in customer service, while providing for these officers’ aspirations in terms of career development and progression.
- Reviewing the entire customer handling process at the MOM Services Centre, to better differentiate walk-in customers from those who make enquiries on case-specific issues. By offering alternatives for customers to either self-help or be moved to an appointment-based process, MOM hopes to better regulate the flow of customer visits, thereby ensuring that each case can be given its appropriate attention, without overwhelming staff with heavy customer flow during peak periods.
- Deepening its capabilities to leverage data analysis, in order to better harvest the wealth of customer interaction information collected by CaRe@Mom across the various service touch points. Making better sense of this data on what MOM customers are saying and doing will translate into improved policies, processes and service delivery.
While MOM continues to transform and improve its service delivery to meet customer expectations, it is also mindful that there are limits. First, while IT and automation play a large part in many service transformational efforts, IT-enabled improvements do not necessarily translate into manpower cost savings. Instead, it allows the agency to add value and provide more complex, personalised advisory services. Automation may in fact mean an increase in the resources that are needed (such as having more qualified staff to handle residual services which take up a longer time per interaction) because the straightforward transactions have already been migrated to online and other self-help platforms. New service needs and opportunities that subsequently open up may also require manpower resources to fulfill.
Second, MOM believes that “you can outsource the service, but you can’t outsource the problem”; it seeks to remain fully accountable for the full range of services under its mandate, since these services have an impact on the public no matter who delivers them. This means that the customer experience for services that are not rendered directly by MOM, but by external service providers (such as the commissioned MOM Contact Centre), should also be well designed, delivered, and monitored.
Finally, the hard truth is that better service delivery does not necessarily mean happier customers. Often, citizens are responding to the impact of policies rather than the service standards of the agency. Chasing compliments will only take a service organisation so far, and in fact risks becoming counter- productive after a point.
Customer satisfaction is ultimately limited as an indicator of the work done by public sector organisations. The value proposition of a public service agency is often based on less tangible and quantifiable outcomes such as citizen trust, empathy, policy effectiveness, and the prevention of crises or other public problems down the road. Hence, conventional efficiency-based KPIs may not be as relevant as they might be in a profit- making private sector organisation, and could in fact drive the wrong processes and behaviour. This begs the deeper question: How can we best assess the value and performance of public service delivery in this brave new future?
My special thanks to team members who have contributed to this article: Deputy Director Foo Chek Nam, Senior Assistant Directors Tan Che Wei and Chow May Fong, Assistant Director Irving Lim, Section Head Nicholas Quek, Senior Manager Regina Chang and, last but not least, Manager Janet Koh.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roslyn Ten is Director of the Customer Responsiveness Department at the Ministry of Manpower, responsible for managing the ministry’s service touch points, including its outsourced MOM Contact Centre, and building staff capability in service excellence. She is also the Ministry’s Quality Service Manager. Mrs Ten has more than 30 years’ experience in the public service, spanning labour relations, employment facilitation and work injury compensation.
- There was a substantial increase in customer volume after the 2011 General Election. For instance, the workload for the MOM Quality Service Management team alone almost tripled from the low 200s to more than 500 cases per day via email and phone. This spike may be due to several factors, including the tightening of immigration and foreign worker policies, redirected cases, and a greater willingness by the public to come forward with feedback.