How far can an app go to channel community spirit?

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Sim Ann, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development.

Bologna, Italy set up a Civic Imagination Office for citizens to come forward with ideas on how to improve public spaces. They’ve repainted kindergartens and repaired public benches. This is just one example of how citizens can use their community spirit to improve the local area.

In Singapore, the Municipal Services Office (MSO) is responsible for connecting citizens with local authorities and town council services. It is creating new opportunities for citizens to feedback through its OneService app, a one-stop hub for municipal feedback reporting.

Sim Ann, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development oversees the MSO. She discusses the new Help Neighbour feature, AI-powered chatbots and how governments can find innovative ways of delivering services.

Bringing communities together

The app’s new Help Neighbour feature allows users to easily alert social service agencies when they see an individual who may be in need, for example a rough sleeper. A 2019 study found that Singapore has about 1000 homeless people, reported The Straits Times.

Concerned citizens have already been alerting agencies or sharing stories on social media, says Sim. The app provides a more straightforward way of communicating with the relevant agency, while not risking the individual being over-exposed on social media.

The app received 58 reports in its first three months, with 40 per cent of these cases not on the agencies’ radar, Sim highlights. The MSO encourages “the spirit of looking out for one another” and this feature “embodies” that, she adds.

MSO also works together with citizens to suggest and build solutions to local issues. This is especially helpful for issues regarding human behaviour which “cannot be resolved by government agencies alone”, she says.

For instance, Singapore needed a way to discourage inconsiderate or illegal parking. Citizens helped create posters of quirky cartoon monsters with humorous slogans to remind drivers to be considerate, an MSO report explained.

Another group of citizens found an innovative way of encouraging citizens to stop littering. They added basketball hoops to waste bins, using gamification to encourage citizens to dispose of their rubbish responsibly.

A similar government programme, Emerging Stronger Conversations, also looks to use citizen suggestions for policy making. The initiative opens dialogue with citizens about Singapore’s post-Covid future and co-create solutions together.

Delivering seamless public services

The MSO is experimenting with different ways to address citizens' problems while reducing its manual work. It is trialling a new system in one area with this goal in mind.

The office combined different services such as cleaning, infrastructure maintenance, and pest control into one integrated platform. These used to be managed by separate agencies, but are now overseen from a single system.

The agency has taken a new approach, believing services should come to the citizen, not the other way around. It created a chatbot on messaging apps Whatsapp and Telegram, allowing citizens to provide feedback through a familiar platform.

The chatbot’s AI can automatically direct citizens' feedback to the relevant agency, Sim highlights. For more complex cases, it loops in a human staff member to assist.

A new feature on the app allows citizens to report safe distancing violations to the relevant enforcement agency. The app has seen its number of downloads grow by six times since this feature launched.

Keeping citizens connected is a key benefit of the OneService app. It was developed before Covid-19, but provided a “contactless channel for municipal feedback at a time when many counter services had to be significantly curtailed”, she emphasises.

The MSO needs to have the right mindset to continue serving citizens in a post-pandemic world, Sim highlights. A “Do first, talk later” service mindset allowed the app’s safe distancing feature to be developed in less than a week, in the middle of the pandemic in 2020.

“Looking ahead, MSO will continue to design our services with citizens’ needs at the centre,” says Sim. As the number of its app downloads increases, the MSO will have increasing awareness of how to better serve citizens.

With more technology comes more opportunities for citizens to connect with their government. The OneService app is an example of how digital tools can replace established channels, providing a quicker pathway for citizens to have their voice heard.

Image from Senior Minister of State Sim Ann's Facebook.