Smartphones and social media have greatly empowered citizens. With a few taps on a screen, frustrated customers can complain about services to thousands of people. Governments are adapting to these rising demands.

In 2004, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower set up a department to champion customers’ needs internally. The Customer Responsiveness Department sets the ministry’s service vision and guideline, and more broadly inculcates a culture of “service excellence” across the entire organisation.

“When the department was set up a lot of people had this misconception that service excellence is the sole responsibility of our frontline officers,” says Phua Boon Leng, the department’s director. His job for the last three years has been to correct such beliefs and put customers at the centre of the ministry’s work.

Listening to customers’ needs

The focus has been on enabling all officers across the ministry to listen to customers and understand their needs. “We cannot just focus on delivering the service, but customers also give feedback and we need to keep our ears to the ground,” he says. The department is the “voice of the customer” in the ministry. It gathers feedback and takes it back to the department to improve processes, policies and services.

When policies are being crafted, the department helps officers understand how customers would perceive it and questions they would naturally ask. It also monitors customers’ reaction post policy implementation and shares the feedback with policy departments. For instance, are there certain questions people are asking and how these can be clarified.

“Nobody wants to design a bad policy. Nobody wants to do a bad job”, Phua says. But to make good policies, officials must first understand the customers’ perspectives, because they are the very people who will be affected by the policies.

Design thinking

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When the ministry looks at improving services it asks: What is the best way of serving the customer – regardless of the mode of delivery. “The solution, in my view, is to understand what each channel is capable of, and what would be in the customer’s best interest,” Phua says.

In some cases, people may be best served online. But if the customer is an elderly person who is not tech savvy or someone without regular internet access, perhaps phone or face to face is the best option. “There is no fixed cookie cutter solution,” he says.

The team uses design thinking, an approach that puts customers first. The team observes the customer’s journey as they go through a particular transaction with the ministry. It understands their needs and identifies problems in the existing journey. It then tests new ways to solve the problem and launches a longer term plan to implement solutions. It continues tweaking afterwards based on user feedback.

For instance, the ministry has redesigned its customer service hall to cut waiting times. It found that people were queuing up for one or two hours at times to speak with staff at the service centre. The ministry removed physical queues and put up an electronic ticketing system. People can now sit and wait for their queue number to be called.

It made brochures and set up e-kiosks to address frequently asked questions and general enquiries, so some people may not need to queue at all. It also looked at how long transactions take and scheduled appointments to minimise waiting times.

Design thinking is a relatively new area in government, and the ministry wants to make sure that every official has a basic understanding of how it works. A first step it has taken is to make opportunities for policy makers to listen directly to what customers need. Officers are scheduled to go to the ministry’s call centre and listen to calls that are coming in. “They listen to what the challenges customers are facing, the type of questions they’re asking pertaining to the policies the officer is designing and understand why they are asking those questions”, Phua says.

Digital services

A more recent manifestation of this approach is the Ministry’s newly designed website.

The ministry found that people were calling because they couldn’t find or understand information online. “If people are calling us because they cannot find the information online, then we should make sure the information is put online,” he says.

The search function on the new website is positioned front and centre to help people find information faster. Popular e-services are listed on the homepage. It prominently shows four key areas that visitors generally want information on – work permits, employment practices, workplace safety and statistics.

The second big change to the website was making sure the information is easy to understand. “Chunks of descriptive information” have been replaced by steps to show people the process they need to go through. The website was also made responsive, allowing people to view the same information on their smartphones.

MOM home page

Another emphasis is on understanding what information the user is seeking. For example, expectant mothers can find out when they can go on maternity leave. The website asks them to fill in their child’s delivery date and whether they prefer to take leave before or after their baby is born.

Customers’ feedback was used to decide what information should be put up on the website. “We consciously seek out which content meets the needs of our customers”, Phua says. The ministry launched seven beta versions for the new website which sat alongside the old one. Customers were then invited to provide feedback on whether information in the new website was useful and if anything was missing.

The team also worked with call centre staff to test whether the new website worked. Staff were asked to use information from the website to answer people’s enquiries, allowing them to identify any gaps in the information provided.

The website was launched last year, but it must be continuously improved, Phua says. The ministry has a team that is constantly looking at the website’s analytics. This shows what information visitors are looking, what transactions are being used and which are not, and how people navigate the website.

As a result of these changes, the ministry has “almost doubled the usage of our website”, he says. It has also cut down calls in some areas where online services were improved. For instance, calls on work permits for foreign domestic workers were cut by 40% and 56% of employers complete these transactions themselves rather than going through agents. “We redesigned the entire transaction experience for our customers”, Phua says.

Phua’s own background shows the value of having multidisciplinary skills in driving change. He started off as an engineer in the public service, and then moved around different parts of the Ministry of Manpower. “Now that I’m here I’m able to better appreciate the challenges that different officers face”, he says.

The experience from his engineering days of working with different kinds of people – managers, builders and engineers – has helped him better understand what motivates people. “You should focus on the issues that need to be tackled, and not get too emotionally attached to your own position. This helps in understanding what needs to be done to address the situation,” he says.

Customers want their frustrations to be heard and quickly addressed. This ministry in Singapore is rising to the challenge.