A good product is easy to use and gets the job done. A computer houses a board of complex wiring, but a user does not need to know how it works to use it.

The same applies with government, and Municipal Services Office (MSO) is the Singapore Government’s internal hardware. The office was set up in 2014 to improve service delivery in the city’s neighbourhoods, ensuring litter is cleared up and broken streetlights fixed.

These seemingly simple tasks require complex coordination across multiple agencies. “In a system that is as extensive as our public service, responsibilities may sometimes be split and reside with different agencies,” says Tay Kim Poh, Deputy Secretary (Services) of Ministry of National Development, who oversees the MSO.

Wiring the circuit

The unit’s first task was to make it easier to report such daily issues. It launched the OneService app, allowing people to submit complaints without having to figure out which agency to go to. If you spot a problem in your neighbourhood, you can simply snap a photo, tag the location and send it through the app.

The approach requires deep-rooted changes in the machinery of government. “As a central coordinating body, MSO’s focus is to make systemic improvements, so that the government, as a whole, can serve residents better,” Tay says. MSO is working with 11 agencies which must respond to complaints received through OneService.

“MSO’s focus is to make systemic improvements, so that the government, as a whole, can serve residents better.”

Where issues straddle multiple agencies, the MSO has appointed a “first responder” – the lead agency which receives all complaints in that category. The National Parks Board, for instance, will be responsible for maintaining all public greenery. These are currently split with three other agencies.

MSO has built an internal feedback management system called OneService@SG, together with the Infocomm Development Authority. This automatically routes all feedback received through the app to the right agency. “The system also has an escalation protocol which surfaces complex or ambiguous cases to MSO for attention and follow-up”, Tay adds.

The unit has negotiated standards for response times across agencies. Straightforward cases, like cleaning up litter or clearing fallen trees, are addressed within a week. More complex cases involving multiple agencies may take a little longer. Even then, the government has seen a drop in response times for such cases – from 21 days to 13 days over the last year.

Boosting the drive

MSO’s work does not end there. “We see that it’s not enough just to receive and attend to the feedback,” says Tay. It is analysing these reports to help agencies use their resources more efficiently.

“We see that it’s not enough just to receive and attend to the feedback.”

A “major area of work” is to use this feedback to shape citizens’ behaviour. Earlier this year, one of its community partners ran a media campaign asking residents to keep noise levels down during festivals. MSO’s feedback showed that noise complaints are highest during the new year celebrations, and most reports were against neighbours. “Our agencies were able to work with the Singapore Kindness Movement to spread out more public educational messages”, says Tay.

More caring neighbours will mean less complaints for the government to handle. Citizens have to “be more conscious of the need to take good care of their environment”, he adds. “Otherwise there will be endless work for the government agencies, and we really can’t afford that because of resource constraints.”

The MSO is also helping the government deliver more predictive services, anticipating rising areas of concern and nipping them in the bud. The office found that illegal parking, noise, infrastructure maintenance, cleanliness and pest control are the top concerns. “With such knowledge, we work closely with the relevant agencies to identify possible areas for improvement in service delivery and work processes,” says Tay.

On cleanliness, it worked with the National Environment Agency to catch people littering. NEA officers in uniform and plainclothes patrol littering hotspot, handing out fines to offenders. MSO analysed data on where and when most littering occurs and matched the patrol officer’s work against that. “We are able to tell which areas are underserved or overserved, and are working with them to better plan the enforcement schedule,” he says.

Building a network

The data also tells MSO when processes need to be better coordinated among agencies. With MSO’s “central awareness” of municipal issues handled by its partner agencies, it identifies “areas which can be streamlined or where service delivery can benefit from having a single point of response”, Tay says.

Most recently, it found that maintenance of pedestrian infrastructure needs to be better coordinated. The Land Transport Authority was announced as the lead agency for all maintenance feedback on walkways, including footpaths, staircases, and overhead bridges. LTA is now in charge of responding to such complaints, and will coordinate between agencies to ensure they are fixed.

MSO also tied up with Town Councils, the locally elected bodies responsible for cleaning and maintaining public housing estates. The councils are autonomous, each with its own way of handling citizens’ complaints. By the end of this year, all 16 Town Councils will have aligned their processes and protocols with government agencies.

User experience

OneService app

The office will continue to make it easier for people to complain, making constant changes to the OneService app.

The latest is a “crowdsourcing” feature to report stray supermarket trolleys. These trolleys are meant to be returned to the shop after use, but many are left on walkways. App users can send locations and photos of trolleys they find lying around. “I was told one trolley costs more than $200, so the supermarkets are very keen to get back their trolleys,” he says.

Rather than making massive overhauls to the app, MSO introduces small changes to test if they make a difference. The trolley feature, for instance, is a pilot to see whether people would be willing to contribute to crowdsourcing, says Tay. “We are trying it out to see whether people would make use of it.” And MSO says people are – in less than two months, more than 400 cases of abandoned trolleys have been reported.

The unit plans to crowdsource more information through the OneService app, helping agencies save time. “Of course, we want to go beyond just supermarket trolleys. We are now looking to other areas where the public is keen to provide feedback,” says Tay. “If they are prepared to give you information, works can then get done faster.”

The office will also launch a OneService web portal later this year. Apart from reporting complaints, citizens will get information on what’s happening in their neighbourhood, including dengue clusters, roadworks and cleaning schedules.

The secret hack

The MSO team uses a hack to work more effectively. It brings in civil servants with experience in the specific areas of service delivery it must improve. Officials from partner agencies join MSO on short stints. On returning, they can improve delivery from within their own agencies.

Tay himself was previously the CEO of HDB. “It enables me to better understand the kind of issues faced by Singaporeans in their daily lives, the way agencies work with each other and with the Town Councils, and the systems and protocols in place to manage the municipal issues,” he says.

Taking apart the MSO machine reveals a complex network of wiring. From the outside, all that people see is a good user experience.