Singapore’s Minister of Manpower hired design consultancy IDEO to rethink how its work permit service centre should be designed. Here’s how they did it.

The ambience in the Employment Pass Service Centre “more closely resembles a luxury hotel lobby than a grim government agency”, writes Professor Manuel Sosa from INSEAD, who studied the ministry’s approach.

The first step was to understand the user journey. The service centre issues work permits for foreign professionals arriving in Singapore. The team observed what goes through visitors’ minds during the application process. They talked with foreigners about their experience of arriving in Singapore.

“IDEO discovered that professionals newly arrived in Singapore were embarking on an entirely new chapter of their lives, with all the expected stresses. The last thing they needed was more stress when receiving their permit,” Professor Sosa writes.

EPSC arrival hall

With this in mind, the centre was built. Visitors are greeted by concierge in a spacious entry hall, free of clutter to create a sense of calm. For those with families, there are toys to entertain children while parents speak with officers. Open, carpeted cabins have replaced intimidating interview rooms. Visitors are always called by their name, not number.

EPSC cabanas

With better design came more efficiency. The centre uses an online appointment system to cut waiting times. 95% of visitors are attended to within 15 minutes, and 90% within 10 minutes. The centre scored 5.7 out of 6 in its first customer satisfaction survey in 2010.

The success of this approach has made user experience the basis for nearly all of the Work Pass Division’s customer-facing work. For example, it removed jargon from all written communications with customers. “Now, if the agency had to deliver bad news, e.g. that a permit had been cancelled or denied, they could at least do so in plain language,” writes Professor Sosa.

The unit has restructured itself to keep up with this approach. Instead of teams built around specific processes, the agency is structured around market segments so they can work closely with individual employers.

And to ensure that this work continues, a new Customer Experience, Policy and Strategy department was setup – including a Service Innovation team.