Inside Singapore’s Finance Ministry

Exclusive interview with Thia Jang Ping, Director of Singapore’s Strategic Finance Transformation Office.

“In early 2010, there was beginning to be a drop in citizen satisfaction with government services,” Thia Jang Ping says. Combined with a shrinking labour force, this spurred agencies to overhaul their approach. The Ministry of Finance launched a Transformation Office, headed by Thia, to assist departments with this journey. GovInsider caught up with him to find out what really happens behind the scenes. Tech transformation First, the Office uses its position to ensure a ‘whole of government’ approach, he explains, moving procurement away from the silos of the past. The team analyses projects with common ground and makes agencies invest in a shared system, rather than build separate ones. For example, the office recently procured a system for the Municipal Services Office. This routes feedback across government when citizens use an app to complain, ensuring that data is shared widely by departments. The system uses API gateways to overcome the problem of different legacy IT systems with different data formats. Second, his team uses technology to improve financial processes. Agencies now use machine learning to pick out financial anomalies and flag them for audit. This allows staff to focus on more complex issues like negotiating contracts, training staff and developing new business models. “We want a situation where finance officers don’t have to worry about day-to-day transactions,” he says. But this approach requires a change of mindset among finance officials, he believes. They “must learn to be comfortable with technology”, he says. Further, they must take a risk-based approach because it’s not about “getting everything right, but getting the most important and critical pieces right”, he says. Finally, the Transformation Office prioritises the use of data analytics. This can minimise the risk of error as officials allow the technology to take over. It also has other crucial benefits, understanding citizens’ use of public services, and segmenting them as customers to allow greater targeting of services. Don’t break the piggy bank The unit is ultimately responsible for ensuring that public funds are used effectively, but “a lot of things that the public sector does are hard to capture”, Thia says. It is tricky to assign a monetary value to policies, especially those with intangible social benefits like training local sportspeople. Nevertheless, the office encourages agencies to measure their deliverables against “tangible outputs”. For example, library services can be measured by how many books get loaned out per dollar invested in national libraries. The effectiveness of the National Parks Board can be estimated on how many acres of land are maintained per hired manpower, for instance. Even when a service doesn’t have a market value, it can still be measured by productivity and citizen satisfaction. In fact, his team places particular emphasis on the measurement of citizen satisfaction, partnering with Singapore Management University to conduct research and set metrics. “We need to make sure that, even as we become more efficient, citizens do not feel that they are left out of the process,” he says. This is fitting for an agency formed when citizen satisfaction started to decline. Thia’s most important task, however, is ensuring that Government stays within its budget. As agencies improve their service delivery, “we mustn’t do it in a way where we break the bank for the ministry”, he says. After all, a Smart Nation spends its money wisely.