Opinion

What Does It Mean to Optimise Public Service Delivery?

Lee Chong Hock and John Lim from the PS21 Office examine the challenges that face the Singapore Public Service, as it reaches beyond individual service excellence towards Whole-of-Government outcomes.

Date Posted

1 Apr 2008

Issue

Issue 4, 14 Apr 2008

ACHIEVING SERVICE EXCELLENCE

Standards of public service delivery in Singapore have demonstrably improved in the last decade. While developments have been uneven across the Public Service, the efforts of agencies to pursue service excellence have generally benefited the public in the form of more service channels and higher standards of customer service. In 2007, Singapore took the top spot in Accenture’s “Leadership in Customer Service: Delivering on the Promise” study for our efforts in developing customer-centric service models and proactive communications,a ahead of 22 other countries, including Canada and the US.

According to Accenture, Public Services around the world have been focusing primarily on improvements to the front end of service. However, the interpretation of citizen-centric service delivery as providing existing services in multiple channels (especially the electronic channel) has unintentionally widened the gap between public agencies’ vision of customer service and the actual service experience of their customers. Citizens use these channels expecting consistent levels of service but, without the same commitment to the backend structural and cultural changes needed to support the vision, the customer experience is one that is ultimately negative.

Singapore’s advantage lies in our Public Service’s aggressive approach to implementation, with a clear top-driven agenda which includes a holistic ICT master plan to positively transform the customer service experience. This approach has served us well. However, one should keep in mind the fundamental purposes of the Government as we continue our evolution of public service delivery.

ACHIEVING SERVICE OPTIMALITY

Focusing on the customer experience is essential, but there is also a need to balance that with good governance. Without a clear strategy to strike an equilibrium between serving customer interests and serving the public good, our current trajectory of “service excellence” may be skewed towards “going the extra mile”, and placing an overemphasis on improving standards and innovating service solutions, ad infinitum. To begin the discourse on this equilibrium, two areas need closer examination:

1. What price, service?

There is no common understanding between the Public Service and its customers as to what constitutes “service excellence”. Public expectations are rising, and a growing number of customers demand higher standards and more choices. Against this backdrop is the Government’s responsibility to uphold the public good and ensure cost efficiency in service delivery. Agencies attempt to meet demands of both sides, balancing customer wants against their organisations’ priorities, but these are mostly ad hoc, agency-level strategies rather than comprehensive Whole-of-Government solutions.

Without an explicit way of determining the ideal state of service provision vis-à-vis public interest, perceptions are being shaped by a vocal few, and agencies are susceptible to pressure applied by this vocal minority. Better service invariably comes at a price (i.e., requiring more resources), and the question often neglected is: who actually benefits, and who is paying for it?


Customer satisfaction is about giving customers what they need, when they need it.

2. Should it be handled with CARE?

The Singapore Public Service uses the CARE1 framework to guide its approach in delighting customers. However, the framework itself gives more focus to front end customer service standards, and does not address the systemic and mindset issues at all levels of Government necessary to bring about true service excellence stemming from total organisational excellence.

Customer satisfaction is about giving customers what they need, when they need it. For the Public Service, this means policies should be formulated with implementation and delivery in mind, from involving stakeholders early by providing avenues for consultation and feedback, to demonstrating a willingness to change policy stances to meet the needs of the people. How prepared are we (as a Government) to more comprehensively and openly engage stakeholders from the onset of the policy-making process, so as to provide policies and services that meet shared desired outcomes, rather than attempting to “delight” them with good customer service at the end, or plugging gaps and loopholes as they arise?

CASE IN POINT: HOW MUCH IS “E-NOUGH”?

The tension that exists between the strategic push for e-Government and customer-focused service delivery is symptomatic of the need for a more focused strategy. On the one hand, in order to fully reap the benefits of electronic channels, both agencies and customers must be wholly onboard. Agencies must invest the resources necessary to make successful transition of services to the electronic channels, and customers must be willing and able to access them online. On the other hand, customer-focused service means service delivery at the greatest possible ease and convenience to the customer, as defined by the customer. This would mean that the customer has a choice among all available channels, all with the highest possible standards.

Currently, many agencies still use a mixed channel strategy, trying to strike a balance between fulfilling the goals of e-Government and providing a wide array of service channels to meet customer needs. Without making sense of the strategies we could take for service channel evolution and how these can be aligned at the Whole-of-Government level, it remains the agencies’ prerogative to determine that middle point and to manage that tension between strategies.

CONCLUSION

The size and nature of the Public Service do not lend itself well to rigid standardisation and normalisation. This is a good thing, as we increasingly rely on the creativity, dynamism and boldness of our agencies to carry out their duties in this constantly changing environment. The same goes for service excellence. Agencies should be allowed to improve and improvise at their own pace, governed by a central strategic directive. However, the greatest challenge with that is that perceptions of the Public Service are shaped by the “weakest link”. This has been demonstrated by lapses in the “No Wrong Door” policy,2 where customer satisfaction plummets at the point where the policy is disregarded, when the first officer “drops the ball”.


Perceptions of the Public Service are shaped by the “weakest link”.

One way to address this is to resist the urge to roll out blanket service improvement initiatives which agencies have to follow, and instead use a more targeted approach to achieve predefined Whole-of-Government outcomes. Attention and resources should be given to critical areas, such as supporting agencies that require more assistance, or building necessary infrastructure to aid agencies’ efforts. In essence, we need to articulate a credible Whole-of-Government vision of service excellence, facilitate the realisation of that vision, and then just trust our agencies to do the right thing.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lee Chong Hock is an Assistant Director (Development) in the PS21 Office, where he oversees the customer and citizen engagement portfolio. He works with public agencies to strive for service excellence, as one of the focus areas under Singapore’s “Public Service for the 21st Century” (PS21) movement.

John Lim is a senior executive in the PS21 Office. He manages the citizen engagement portfolio in Public Service Office (PSO), and works with the Infocomm Development Authority to design and implement the Public Service’s e-engagement strategy under iGov2010, the Government’s five-year ICT master plan.

Through PS21, the Office hopes to build up capacity in the Public Service so that it is better prepared to meet future challenges. For more information, please visit http://www.ps21.gov.sg


NOTES

  1. CARE stands for: Courtesy (politeness, considerateness); Accessibility (convenience of transacting with the Government, including being able to complete a transaction without going to multiple agencies); Responsiveness (includes promptness of service delivery, proactively meeting customers’ needs, and flexibility to accommodate special circumstances); and Effectiveness (consistency of quality and reliability of Government services).
  2. Launched in 2004, the premise of the No Wrong Door policy is a simple one: if an agency receives feedback on an issue which is not under its charge, it must redirect the feedback to the right agency and ensure that the latter agency responds to the feedback giver; and if the feedback involves a few agencies, the receiving agency should coordinate a single consolidated reply.

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