Data puts everyone on a level field – whether you’re the boss or an intern, your ideas are equally valid and can be put to test.

This is the vision of a work culture that civil servant Hefen Wong is trying to build. Testing “gets you to put everyone’s assumptions on a level playing field”, she tells GovInsider. She heads up a team with diverse skills at Co-Lab – an innovation unit in Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Here she combines behavioural insights, data analytics and design thinking to improve the way citizens are served. It started out as a team of two, the first dedicated behavioural sciences unit in the Singapore Government, inspired by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team.

Today, Wong’s vision is for “all policy services to be human-centered and all decisions to be data-driven” in the Ministry. She tells GovInsider how Co-Lab’s multidisciplinary approach is facilitating better conversations between the ministry, businesses and citizens.

Engaging retirees

For instance, it has worked together with the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board to improve its retirement planning service.

When citizens turn 54, the CPF Board sends letters asking to meet with them to plan their retirement. 15% of citizens made appointments after its first letter. A second reminder letter raised response levels to 27%, but more could be done, Wong says. “We were asking, why did they not want to come for the service? It’s free anyway.”

Co-Lab collaborated with the CPF team to simplify the original letter with personalised information, clear headers, and laying out the exact steps citizens need to follow. “We make the header very clear; we have personalised information, and we give people the exact steps they need to do,” says Wong.

These letters also tell citizens that appointment slots have already been reserved for them to increase their chances of showing up. “We wanted to shift people’s decision from ‘Should I go?’ to ‘When should I go?’” Wong shares. This approach was trialled with over a thousand people, which eventually doubled attendance to 31.1%.

Improving workplace safety and health

One area that it is focusing on is workplace safety and health, particularly in the construction industry, Wong says. The construction sector has consistently been the highest contributor to workplace fatal injuries, accounting for more than 35% of fatalities from 2007 to 2016. Last year, Co-Lab launched a project to help construction companies take greater ownership of their workplace safety.

They found three main pain points on safety at construction sites: first, that management often pay limited attention to safety practices; second, the safety officers face conflicts between implementing safety practices and ensuring that projects meet deadlines; and finally, companies felt the ministry did not provide specific feedback to improve safety practices, Wong explains.

Co-Lab trialled a new engagement method with more than 200 companies and found that it made a difference, she says. The companies required six times less enforcement actions – like warning letters – from the government, leading to 15% reduction in resources spent as well.

Co-Lab tested three key interventions with these companies. Before going on site inspections, the ministry sent out letters to alert the firm’s senior management on the shortcomings of their safety practices and let them know of an upcoming inspection, Wong says

Next, Wong’s team co-designed a checklist and “diagnosis sheet” with safety inspectors to locate the root causes of safety lapses. Finally, after the inspection, another letter will be sent to the company’s senior management, highlighting results of the inspection and ways to improve safety. “We wanted to upskill the company. Instead of telling you there are gaps, we say, this is exactly what you can do to improve,” Wong adds.

Data and AI

The team also uses data to identify which companies are at higher risk of violating workplace safety regulations and prioritising them for inspections. On the flip side, lower risk companies will need less resources and attention from the ministry. “With a very high-risk company, you could give them more feedback. With a low-risk company, it could be closer to self-regulation.”

The ministry is working with the government’s tech agency to build on this further. It is “experimenting with sensors and Internet of Things with GovTech, to see new ways of engaging companies to facilitate self-regulation,” Wong says.

Another area where Co-Lab hopes to improve is dispute management between companies and employees, she adds. It is engaging in an exploratory project to help employees resolve their disputes online through structured discussions, as an alternative to in-person mediation.

This is an approach used by online retail platforms like Carousell to help buyers and sellers negotiate prices. Face to face conversations can often get heated, but “on a digital platform, it could be designed to be calmer,” Wong says.

Building skills

Apart from improving service delivery, Wong’s team is helping civil servants to build new skills they need to implement these changes in their own teams.

Co-Lab works with officials across the ministry to test new ideas, understand user needs and spend time on the ground for user research. “Research on the ground opens up insights on how people find your programme hard to use, or find your letter hard to read.”

While testing new ideas, officials’ regular work targets are suspended so that they can spend time to experiment and try new things without fear of failure. “When they work with us, they can pause and say, ‘I think there are gaps in my program. Let me see how I can redesign this to make it better.’ We’re trying to nurture a habit of testing and experimentation,” Wong adds.

Co-Lab has also launched a training programme within its unit – “Fridays at Co-Lab” – where team members train each other on new skills. The team has people across disciplines, from industrial design and sociology to computer science and statistics. “We cross-train each other to be open to solving a problem differently from how you’re trained to solve it.”

The team also trains the ministry’s senior and middle management on how they can better support their teams in using data, design and behavioural insights, including basics like how to clean and visualise data with software. Co-Lab has run two workshops with senior management in the past year, including the ministry’s Deputy Secretary. It is training 120 middle managers this year –with its own customised curriculum.

“We teach them how to ask their staff questions, what to ask, and what exactly these methods can solve, and highlight that no method is simple. After the senior management can get an idea of what these tools can solve, they can better support their teams and partner us,” shares Wong.

Co-Lab’s mission is to ensure policies and services are not built on assumptions or beliefs, but on evidence and data from testing and trying. This approach is helping the government redesign interactions with citizens and building a strong culture of data within.