Opening Address by Head, Civil Service, Mr Peter Ong at the PS21 ExCEL Awards Ceremony

10 November 2016

Greeting and Introduction

1.       Good morning colleagues and friends.  I am delighted to see all of you today at the PS21 ExCEL Awards and Convention 2016. Every year I look forward to this event, because it showcases many exciting innovations that the Public Service has to offer. 

2.       This year’s theme is Innovation, Productivity, Digital – Ready for the Future.  These are exciting and important ideas that I believe hold the keys to an uplifting and bright future for Singapore.  It reflects our commitment to be ready for the future through innovation, especially in the digital realm, and to pursue productivity gains.   We must excel and deliver today, while being ready for the future - this lies at the heart of our Public Sector Transformation (PST). 

The Future is Here

3.       In fact, the future is already here.  We are living at a unique point in history where we are seeing the convergence of unprecedented technological breakthroughs across the physical, digital and even biological domains. This holds great potential for improving lives, increasing productivity and enhancing effectiveness.  Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes this as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.  Unlike the previous revolutions fuelled by electricity, mass production and automation, the Fourth Revolution is having an exponential impact on the world on several fronts simultaneously.

4.       Take for example Artificial Intelligence, or A.I., where the key idea is that software, and machines, can be programmed to “learn” and make decisions autonomously.  Examples abound in our daily lives: algorithms learn our habits and offer suggestions on books, music and Youtube videos that we might like; virtual assistants serve us and chat with us in increasingly natural ways. In fact there was once I was trying to book something online, and I did not realise that the person on the other end was a robot.

5.       We must always be on the look-out for cutting-edge technological developments to help us innovate, and apply these in our Public Service.  We must be a technology-intensive Public Service, one where our daily work is a digitally immersive and data-rich experience for all our officers.  

The Continuing Need for Public Sector Transformation

6.       During the Public Service Conference in July, I shared that we have achieved much since we began the Public Sector Transformation in 2012, and that we are in a better position to deepen our transformation movement in the Public Service.  We have identified five strategies for the next phase of PST.  These will continue to guide us toward our vision of becoming One Trusted Public Service with Citizens at the Centre:

• One: Fostering a bold and innovative public service 
• Two: Delivering seamlessly as One Public Service 
• Three: Connecting & Working with Citizens 
• Four: Developing inspiring and future-ready Workplaces 
• Five: Working smarter and better through technology

Fostering a Bold and Innovative Public Service

7.       I wish to take some time to speak about one of these strategies: fostering a Bold and Innovative Public Service.  This is not a new concept. Innovation has been a hallmark of our change movement since the early days of transformation when we started PS21 in 1995.  From computerising the Public Service in the 1980s, to various policy innovations today, such as piloting the first driverless cars and buses in the world, we have done much in innovation. This spirit must continue in the next lap of PST.

Encouraging the Culture of Innovation

8.       What does “Innovative” mean when we refer to a “Bold and Innovative Public Service”?  Some of my colleagues have offered two variations:  the first type, what I call the big “I” innovations, are those that are bold and strategic game-changing concepts. An example would be our Smart Nation initiative.  Big “I"s require an eco-system that enables ideas and innovations to flourish. They often require a systems approach to achieve shifts at a holistic level, across multiple processes, domains and agencies.  While everyone can be a part of big “I” innovations, the burden for such ideas typically falls on top management and top leadership to generate and push through. But I make a point, that everyone can be involved in the big “I”s, it’s not just top management or leadership, though usually the burden for pushing through such ideas come from them. 

9.       But at the more fundamental level, to enable these big “I”s, we need to start with the small “i” innovations.  Small “i”s are the heart of the ExCEL movement.  They are the constant improvements that we can all make to enhance the way we work and deliver services.  They come from all officers, experienced or new, from policy or operations, regulation or promotion, in any domain. Small “i” innovations involve implementing good ideas well, so that we create better outcomes for our stakeholders. 

10.     Let me share an example, from one of our Gold Award winners today in the Innovative Project category.  MOM embarked on a major overhaul of their work pass system for Foreign Domestic Workers, reducing transaction time from fifteen minutes to three minutes, and reducing about $5 million in third-party intermediary costs to employers.  Today, 30% more employers renew their helpers’ work permits on their own.  This small “i” at the operations level unlocked tangible benefits to both employers and MOM.  

11.     Both big “I”s and small “i”s thrive when we have a culture that supports boldness and innovations on the ground.  How might we nurture such a culture? I think there are three ways:

1)        See Things Differently – first and foremost, we need to see things differently, re-frame issues and put ourselves in the shoes of citizens and businesses. 

2)        Dare to Try – in implementing change, we must try, experiment, seek feedback and learn from our trials.

3)        Lead the Change – All of us should exercise leadership in driving change and innovation, supporting change by allowing good ideas to flow and succeed. 

See Things Differently

12.     Let me begin with what I mean by “seeing things differently”.  During the PSfuture conversations, many officers said that one of the key barriers to being more bold and innovative was the sheer difficulty in initiating change when something was not considered ‘broken’.  To break this inertia towards an existing process or product, every one of us must be able to see things differently. We must not be easily satisfied with the status quo, and must believe that all things can always be improved.

13.     Ms Fazlin Abdullah from the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) is one such officer who saw things differently, and was ready to act.  One day, she saw two sisters at a playground, one of whom was a wheelchair-user.  The able-bodied sister had decided not to climb on the playground equipment after witnessing that her sister was not able to do so, because she was on a wheelchair.  Touched by this incident, and looking at the playground from the sisters’ perspective, Fazlin decided to do something about it.  She introduced new playground equipment that allows children with and without special needs to play together.  For example, the merry-go-round is fitted at ground level and has safety gates to stabilise wheelchairs, with two other seats for able-bodied children.  For wheelchair users to use the swing, there is a ramp in place, and safety locking features at the sides and back.  

14.     This project, a collaboration between NCSS, NParks and Town Councils, was so successful that requests have been coming in to build more of them.  You can take a look at the ideas behind the inclusive playground at the ExCEL exhibition later. 

Dare to Try

15.     Beyond seeing things differently, we must Dare to Try. Let me share another example.

Cube and Workplace by Facebook      

16.     Many of us will remember using Cube, the very first “social intranet” for the Public Service.  It was launched in 2013 to foster a vibrant community of public officers.  It was an energising idea, full of potential. Because we wanted to make sure that everyone of us, 143,000 officers and colleagues, can get to know one another, interact with one another, share ideas and know each other through community spaces. But it was also uncharted territory.  To keep up with the wave of social media then, we decided to give it a try.

17.     The team at PSD worked hard to make Cube an integral part of how public officers interacted with each other, beyond their organisational confines.  I posted my thoughts regularly, and I also read good posts that our fellow colleagues shared.  

18.     However, after some time, the team found that Cube did not quite take off as expected – it was not a failure, but neither was it a success or a force to reckon with.  Among others, there was feedback that the lack of a mobile app prevented easy access and limitations in use. Most of us carry a mobile device. Technical issues, such as the unfamiliar interface and slow loading times were also factors.  These were important learning points for the team. Instead of taking these as signs of failure, they took these as valuable data points to look at alternative ways to engage public officers. 

19.     Enter Workplace, the professional version of Facebook, which many of you are already familiar with.  Workplace is basically the Facebook mode of social networking.  And it can be accessed via officers’ mobile devices without the need to be connected to the intranet.  After considering the various security, cost and usability factors, the team proposed to get the entire Public Service on board Workplace.  I am pleased to share with all of you that we launched Workplace in October, and as part of Phase One, 15 agencies and more than 5,300 public officers are now digitally connected in real time.  The plan is to progressively get the entire Public Service on Workplace by end March 2017.  Let me also share that we are the first Public Service in the world to get on to Workplace. Wouldn’t it be amazing that 143,000 people can form sub-groups, go onto one, whole-of-government platform to share ideas, collaborate and find out about one another?

20.     Now, let me tell you some of the early results. This will not be an entirely fair comparison as the contexts and starting points were different, but the percentage of active weekly users as a proportion of those who have activated their accounts on Workplace since launch is 82%, more than the average weekly visitorship on Cube in its first month of launch.   We have seen agencies reduce the number of internal emails sent by posting major announcements on Workplace. Senior leaders are engaging with their staff more frequently and meaningfully than before, and there is an explosion of activity across groups from small teams to large, cross-cutting communities of practice. 

21.     To me, this is clear proof that unless we dare to try, we will not be able to ride the new waves of technology of the future.  While it is always good to learn from others has someone else done it elsewhere in the world, we should dare to try new things even if they have not been tried before.   Indeed many of our policies are uniquely Singaporean that has never been practised anywhere else in the world and this is a testament to our daring to try in the past.  We must keep up this spirit as we prepare for the future. 
Lead the Change

22.     Next, I want to speak about how middle managers and leaders can Lead the Change for a more innovative culture.  To lead the change, we need to encourage good ideas where possible. 

23.     I launched the Public Service Innovation Challenge in August this year as a platform for officers to moot ideas in response to pressing challenges faced in the Public Service.  It has a training aspect as well.  The Challenge involves a step-by-step process that helps officers think through their ideas and do simple prototypes to get user-feedback before piloting a project.  As officers do, they learn.

24.     I’m happy to share that we will be having a second makeathon – that was the first in August – at this Convention, centred around the topic of “How might we create One Public Service where public officers are proud to work in, and can deliver seamlessly across agencies?”  

25.     As middle managers and leaders, we must not only find ways to support those who initiate change, we must also ensure that momentum is not lost through countless reviews or analyses.   The pace of change is rapid and we must lead well by keeping pace with this change. 

“Share Your Skills” as an Example of Encouraging Good Ideas

26.     I spoke about the Public Service Innovation Challenge, and a key component of it is for officers to have direct access to leadership who can say “yes” for an idea to be tried out.  I want to relate a personal experience from that Challenge in August.  During the Innovation Challenge makeathon in August, about 60 Public officers from 17 different agencies came together to pitch new ideas through the two-day makeathon. The topic they were being challenged to address was “How Might We Make Work in the Public Service More Dynamic and Productive?”
27.     I was part of the “judging” panel. I wanted to make sure that leaders could give quick answers to good projects, so I thought I’d better lead by example and be part of the panel. PS Ying-I and Kian Hong were with me.   We felt so energised to see so many officers coming together with all their great ideas.  It was also very entertaining because the various groups used different ways to communicate their ideas – from the standard Powerpoint slides and skits to videos. 

28.     Two groups presented similar ideas on how we can resources within the Public Service. One group in particular, called “Yes, I am!”, comprised officers from IRAS, MOE, MOM, MSF, Singapore Polytechnic and PSD. What a motley crowd right – all unrelated agencies. This group proposed setting up a system where public officers with certain professional skills could share these skills among agencies that needed help for a specified task and within a certain time period. So it had to be a professional task and it should not last too long.  They called their project “Are you Available?”.  Examples of these skills included graphic recording, translation or coding: essentially, skills that you may be very good at or are trained in, but don’t get to use much during the course of your work. 

29.     When two members of the team, Yuzhen from MOE and Joycelyn from MOM, began acting out their skit to present their idea, the potential of this idea was obvious.  My fellow panellists, and I felt that in an age where the “gig” economy was gaining prominence, this idea of sharing your skills could make a significant difference in the way we worked. 

30.     This team saw things differently, and dared to try the idea out.  I told PSD to help lead in implementing the project, and that I would give three months to make this project happen.  Today, I’m glad to announce that we have begun a pilot for this idea, called #ShareYourSkills which is being hosted in Workplace, and the pilot will run for six months.  During this period, the team will continually try new ways to improve the platform.  So they don’t have a perfect product, but they put it on for you to try. In the spirit of experimentation, I’m fully persuaded that if it should fail, so be it. I’m prepared to shut it down because the key thing is that we dare to try and to learn. But more importantly, I think it can and will succeed. I hope all of you will go try it out. Not only will it be good for our officers to be able to practise their skills more regularly and frequently, but for agencies, you do not have to go through long procurement processes and timeline to procure these skills, because now we can do it internally. You may no longer need to engage external vendors for some things.  You save time and money.

31.     We already have a few jobs posted in the ShareYourSkills group, such as graphic recorders and photographers.  Now, in the spirit of Daring to Try and Leading Change, for those of us already in Workplace, I would like all of you to go in, offers your skills or maybe search for the ShareYourSkills group on Workplace now, join the group, and start creating matches.


32.     I spoke about how we are living in very extraordinary times of great change, with so many rich possibilities for us to explore in making Singapore a great place to live. Innovation comes when we look at things differently. I also talked about how all of us, no matter what level we are, must See Things Differently, Dare to Try and Lead the Change to create an innovation culture in the Public Service.

33.     I want to end off with a short story.  I believe stories are a good way to promote innovation and I would like to encourage the leaders and managers here to start telling your own story. Start telling the stories that you observe when you travel the world or visit other agencies. What do you learn? Share that with your colleagues. Here’s my story. I believe many of us would have visited the Asian Civilisations Museum.  Cherry Thian – one of our colleagues from the National Heritage Board –  first visited the museum in 2009, marvelling at the exhibits and the rich history behind the artefacts. When Cherry joined the museum as a staff, she wanted to share this experience with as many people as possible.  But in today’s digitally-immersive world, where young people were drawn to images and sounds, she saw things differently: how could the museum attract and engage non-museum goers and “digital natives” to appreciate all this rich history?

34.     Cherry decided to try something new.  She proposed using augmented reality (AR) to provide a location-based and interactive user-experience for the Museum’s special exhibition on Terracotta Warriors in 2011.  Her supervisors were supportive – good supervisors – and encouraging. A pilot was run to obtain user feedback to enhance the museum-going experience.  With a grant from MTI, Cherry worked with a local developer to create a new type of augmented reality that detects real-world objects and applies seamless augmented reality on these objects. 

35.     She did not stop there. She launched the Asian Civilisations Museum’s mobile app last year, which has an interactive, location-based content delivery method via Bluetooth. Museum collections are categorised according to fun hashtags, such as #bizarre, #cute and #whimsical, and this allows visitors to explore other similarly categorised artefacts.  Such personalised content appeals to the younger audiences and helps the museum attract many repeat users. 

36.     So let me issue a challenge to all of us: when we go back to office next week, how will we see things differently?  How do we take the first step towards changing the things around us, like Fazlin and Cherry did?  As middle managers and leaders, how can we support our officers to make positive change to create a vibrant culture of innovation? 

37.     Only by constant innovation can we push the envelope, and go where we have never gone before.  I encourage you to maximise your time and experience at this year’s convention to learn and to go back energised with new ideas, and I wish you an exciting and meaningful learning experience at the Convention 2016.

Thank you very much.