What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on? How did you use tech to improve the way public officers work?

As part of Public Sector Transformation towards building a citizen-centric Smart Nation, the Singapore Government encourages all public officers to leverage tech to increase productivity. There is a strong culture for officers to experiment in the Singapore Public Service. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) started out after a small team of three officers who, after a first encounter with the tool at a tech fair, thought out-of-the-box and dreamed big!

So what is RPA and why were we so passionate about it? Basically, RPA is a software that mimics human actions to increase work efficiency and effectiveness by reducing repetitive tasks through automated solutions. This frees up time for our public officers to take on higher value-added tasks. This improves business processes and productivity.

The “dream team” (pun intended!)—Director Rosemary Yeo, Assistant Director Wong Hui Yi and I—conceptualised and rolled out RPA pilots to 18 public agencies over 2018 and 2019. We wanted to make it easy for interested public agencies and officers to try for themselves what RPA can do for them.

This project was exciting on so many levels(!):

  • PEOPLE: At the individual level, our public officers gained hands-on knowledge. Through this immersive experience, our public officers could better appreciate how this tech can help them reduce boring and repetitive manual workloads, and free up time to take on more interesting, challenging and meaningful roles. This creates greater job satisfaction.
  • JOBS: At the individual level too, new and better jobs (e.g. bot maintenance) are created, providing opportunities for our public officers to upskill and expand their capabilities. For example, when the bot encounters a system exception and stops automating, the officer troubleshoots by identifying possible reasons and rectifying them.
  • CULTURE: The pilot has encouraged public officers to actively review work processes. Each pilot project begins with discussions on the process design, which allows departments to come together, discuss their day-to-day processes, suggest ways to improve efficiency, and determine where a robot colleague could come in to help.
  • FUTURE: The pilot has helped our agencies to be more confident in experimenting and integrating tech into their Public Service Transformation journey. At the agency level, the pilots went beyond mere RPA development to encompass change management (e.g. to prepare the workforce to welcome robot colleagues) and longer term planning (e.g. for tech visioning, integration and capability-building to future-proof the agency’s operating model).

Did we succeed? I think we did. The pilots were successful in converting the participating public agencies and officers into advocates (or what we call “RPA champions”) who could share their positive experiences with other agencies. Let me share two cases.

Use Case 1: Accountant-General’s Department – Auditing
In the past, the auditors needed to approach agencies to provide sample sets of data for audit checks. These checks were sometimes conducted outside the agency environment (which required additional security layers for materials taken off-site) and often took a few days. Now, an attended bot in the laptop goes to the agencies, accesses their data on the spot, and runs algorithms through entire data sets to flag out anomalies within minutes. Auditors now spend less time on manual checks, and more time on working with agencies to understand and to address anomalies and more complex auditing matters. Our colleagues at the Accountant-General’s Department have been sharing, both locally with other public agencies and also at international forums, about how RPA is a game-changer in the way auditors work.

Use Case 2: Public Service Division – Onboarding
In the past, the process of preparing staff card, office equipment and access provisioning was administered across different departments. Each department was working on a different part of a whole – with some departments recording equipment stock and status using a paper notepad. It took 2 weeks for a new hire to obtain access and equipment. The RPA project helped to bring the departments together to brainstorm and simplify the process. Now, an attended bot will allocate user accounts and equipment, notify the service providers, and facilitate new hires’ access and equipment on their first day of work. The pilot cut down manual work for existing staff, and also improved our new hires’ onboarding experience!

What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?

The support from the bosses for our officers to experiment and innovate, and strong teamwork across public agencies, vendors, IT professionals, line managers and support staff to make tech work for them.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?

I’d like to share a quotation from an American musician Dimebag Darrell: ‘Make your heart bleed! Put your soul into that damn thing. And try new things.’

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?

There is a whole spectrum of RPA which, in some literature, encompasses machine learning and artificial intelligence. I don’t think we’re done with ‘basic’ RPA yet.

What are your priorities for 2020?

I am now with the Civil Service College (CSC), the central learning institution for the Singapore Public Service. CSC builds strategic capacity in governance, leadership, public administration and management. At the forefront of learning and development, we lead the way in bringing digital learning to the entire Singapore public service, and play a critical role in raising tech awareness and building digital capabilities. For example, we have been delivering programmes to raise digital literacy across the Public Service, building ops-tech capabilities through the bringing of tech solutions and problem statements in RPA programmes, supporting leaders in leading digital change and equipping policy officers with skills to regulate the digital economy. If anyone wants to find out more, come to the College!

What is one dream you’d like to share for 2020?

My dream is that one day, RPA will be so easy to use that it will be like how we use apps in hand phones to do so many things for ourselves. Once that day arrives, I would like to make RPA so accessible that every public officer can have an attended bot in their laptops as their own ‘robot staff’.