“It is the best of times, it is the worst of times”, as Charles Dickens said. Never has public service been more relevant or revered; yet the scale of the challenge is impossibly vast.
For one Singapore government agency, the pandemic is redefining its future. “We see the Covid-19 situation as an opportunity to turbo-charge digital transformation,” says Wong Yan Jun, Chief Information Officer of the Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB), which manages Singaporeans’ retirement savings.
Wong shares with GovInsider how data and virtual tech will help to reframe the way they interact with citizens.
What Covid means for digital public services
The pandemic will redefine ‘normal’ for all of society, including how public agencies interact with citizens. “Today, many people are saying they can do without going back to the office daily, settling issues in person face-to-face, shaking hands, completing transactions in cash and so on,” Wong says. “This will feed into shaping the ‘new normal’.”
Going digital will help CPFB continue serving its citizens in this ‘new normal’ and will also help the agency become resilient to future pandemics, Wong says. The board has already begun using tech to improve its customer service. It uses data analytics to craft targeted responses to each citizen’s questions. Armed with information on citizens’ past queries and their age profile, customer service officers can easily identify their concerns and needs, says Wong.
The officers then provide customised answers based on this data. If they receive a query on using retirement funds to pay for houses, for instance, the officers would provide different answers depending on whether someone was buying their first home, or had already purchased multiple properties.
The pensions agency is also using machine learning to preempt questions that citizens might ask, Wong shares. The system processes data on commonly-asked questions and shows a predicted set of questions and answers to citizens. This saves them from having to submit a query, he explains.
Underlying this approach is a commitment to make digital as easy as possible. This is especially important for a retirement savings agency, whose services have to be accessible to older, less tech-savvy citizens.
“We should design technology to understand our customers, not train our customers to understand technology,” Wong says. He shares that the agency’s website will undergo a revamp over the next few years to make customer experience more personal.
“We should design technology to understand our customers, not train our customers to understand technology.”
The agency continues to be available for telephone enquiries. It was the first public agency in Singapore to set up a fully home-based customer service centre, which can take calls over the internet from any device, including laptops and tablets. “This enabled us to redeploy officers from the service centres and doubled our call and email handling capacity,” says Wong.
On top of using data analytics and machine learning, CPFB is automating some of the repetitive work officers have to do. For instance, the agency is experimenting with tools that extract data from screenshots, so staff don’t have to enter this data manually.
This is key in allowing the agency to make better, more personalised recommendations for citizens. “The end goal is to have data collected from a fully digital process to be fed back into a customer insights engine,” says Wong.
Automation also frees up officers’ time for “higher-value work”, says Wong. They can spend their time learning new tech skills and building other digital services and processes in the agency.
As physical meetings are no longer possible, the agency has had to redesign some of its services to be completely virtual. For instance, citizens and residents can now declare online who they would like to distribute their retirement savings to after their death.
In other times, citizens signed the nomination document in the physical presence of two witnesses. But tech has made an entirely virtual witnessing process possible, Wong says. The agency uses SingPass, a nationwide digital ID system, to verify the identity of all three parties. The convenience of this new process has led to more citizens declaring who they would like to distribute their CPF savings to after they pass on, notes Wong.
The agency will continue to build tech platforms that will support these digital initiatives. For instance, its website will be hosted on the cloud from next year. “We have a multi-year project to shift the CPF website to a Cloud platform, with the first release by early 2021,” he says.
The pandemic has placed incredible pressure on civil servants around the world. But in many cases, it has become an opportunity for agencies to reshape and redesign their services for a digital-only world.