Emerging Stronger from COVID-19: Singapore’s VITAL Shared Services journey

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Dennis Lui
11/06/2020

Leadership in Unprecedented Times

I began my career in the Singapore Public Service with the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, and the Ministry of Home Affairs before joining VITAL Shared Services, a department under the Ministry of Finance in April 2020. Shortly after I started my new role, Singapore implemented the 56-day Circuit Breaker to contain the spread of COVID-19. I was not familiar with VITAL but had to lead it remotely.

I felt somewhat apprehensive. How would I lead in the COVID-19 and Work-From-Home (WFH) era?

Faith in Our People

I was humbled as it dawned upon me that all I could do was to trust that the organization could adapt quickly. Sure, I could give the exhortations, but I had to leave it to my people to implement. It was with faith and prayer that I took this route. Telecommuting was new to VITAL as traditionally most staff were issued with desktops. Thankfully, the management team had wisely expedited laptop purchases from late Jan 2020, when the COVID situation was worsening. Everyone had to adapt to changes in processes as well as additional work such as the processing of special Government assistance payouts.                            

COVID as the Enabler

COVID accelerated the adoption of digital initiatives. Great progress was made in using digital workflows to submit requests and electronic signatures for payment processes. We piloted contactless appointment formality processes for new hires using video conferencing, digital forms and secured electronic authentication. At first, I was fairly amused that staff seemed to know how to keep operations going. Then, it became apparent to me that the ideas had already been thought of, even before COVID. I was convinced that our DNA has been to seek continuous improvements and go for digital to the core. However, many of these ideas which required upstream process changes, did not gain traction until COVID pushed service partners to adopt the digital initiatives & process streamlining that we always had in mind.

This realisation would play a great part in charting out the strategies to emerge stronger, which I will elaborate upon later.

 

Seeking continuous improvements

  • VITAL's ongoing transformation strategy guided us in building a culture where our staff have a strong readiness for change
  • Exceeded performance targets
  • VITAL to be the center of innovation for Shared Services for the Public Sector

 

The Virtual Human Touch

We had to consider the lack of human touch as we WFH. I decided to speak directly on Workplace by Facebook or ‘live broadcasts’ to staff to explain COVID-19’s impact on VITAL, share stories and celebrate successes, no matter how small. 23 Workplace LIVE sessions were conducted over the 56 days of Circuit Breaker. The LIVE sessions continued even after Circuit Breaker, this time with all the Directors sharing their work experience & knowledge. One of them even demonstrated exercises to keep fit at home! These added the element of human touch and helped build a stronger community as we WFH. We also conducted regular anonymous surveys and addressed the key issues on Workplace LIVE.

Agility and Resilience

In VITAL we are determined to make telecommuting a key capability. We quickly issued laptops, ensured adequate network / infrastructure and made changes to work processes. We implemented flexible work arrangements that focus on outcomes instead of online presence during office hours, which staff appreciated – to manage simultaneous work and family commitments (school-going children at home) with peace of mind. Supervisors were understanding and showed empathy, as they managed teams in a distributed environment.

Our Future Strategies – Emerging Stronger

A Shared Services organisation like VITAL can, and must, be a centre of innovation in our Singapore Public Sector eco-system. As we excel today, we need to transform for tomorrow. COVID has accelerated the transformation, forcing us to redesign our work processes and reimagine ourselves.

VITAL will leverage on our unique position as essential services within our corporate eco-system. We will boldly adopt new strategies to strengthen our value proposition. When COVID-19 hit, leadership came from all levels. This was both inspirational and instructive. We will empower staff and create more opportunities for them. They will in turn be able to contribute more.

We will do this by going up the value-chain:

  • VITAL will become the Robotics and Automation (R&A) Lead for Corporate Administration, for Finance, HR and Procurement, and support the adoption of technologies such as RPA & AI. VITAL has always leveraged on technology. But the shift now is towards better Operations-Technology integration, that will create new capabilities not just for greater efficiency and automation, but also create new options for the policy domain owners.

  • Next, VITAL will play a much larger role in Central Corporate Systems. Project Cumulus will see the Government implement a central Cloud-based ERP system for Statutory Boards. VITAL will provide HR and Finance Shared Services support to them. Another large initiative is the HR and Payroll System for Ministries that integrates several current systems. This would lead to more seamless information flow, fewer hand-offs, and free up capacity. VITAL is actively involved in the system design, development and implementation of the system.

All these initiatives will allow VITAL to pivot from being a predominantly transactional processing outfit to a Shared Services Domain leader.

Workforce Transformation

Culture change underpins success in transformation. Everyone needs to feel excited to embrace the changes, be equipped with skills and to be energised self-learners. Enterprise resilience is as much about attitudes and behaviour, as it is about skills. To become Operations-Technology experts, a huge paradigm shift is required in how we view operations, i.e. from focusing solely on quantity, transactions and cost; to embracing quality, experience and value-add.

VITAL will support the aspirations of our people to learn and upskill. The Shared Services Competency Framework will guide the development of staff, focusing on Growth & Digital mind-set and a Data-driven approach. All officers will go through structured development to acquire the competencies through mastery of hard and soft skills.

Data Analytics

One such key area is that of Data Analytics to identify trends and provide insights and business intelligence. In the concept of ‘Citizen Data Analyst’, all staff are empowered and equipped to analyse data, create linkages and form meaningful insights. VITAL will invest in our staff by sending them for Specialist Diploma courses in Data Analytics and Data Analytics Pathways Certification, in collaboration with our local Institutes of Higher Learning.                                   

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Skills

Similarly, the concept of a ‘Citizen Developer’ ought to be applied for RPA to augment our workforce. RPA is about minimising the time spent on manual and repetitive activities. Not only would it reduce errors and lapses, it would also free up precious time for higher value-added work, including analysis, and exceptions handling.

Conclusion: Gratitude, Hope and People

Let me conclude with three points. First, on gratitude. VITAL exists in the larger eco-system of the Singapore Public Service. I am immensely grateful to the central agencies like the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GOVTECH), the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, the Public Service Division, and the Ministry of Finance, for the central support in the area of IT governance and VPN systems that have made telecommuting possible. I am also thankful that our people adapted quickly to the changes. As a leader, I could not ask for more.

Second, hope. We will excel today, while transforming for tomorrow. This is especially salient in the realm of Shared Services. During a crisis, it is ever more important to ensure salaries and vendors are paid. COVID-19 has stripped away all frills and showed the world what is truly essential. Shared Services are essential!

Last, but certainly not least, our people. What drives me as a leader, is to build new capabilities in our people. We are committed to grow and develop our people to their fullest potential, give them wings and let them fly. Now, more than ever, Shared Services organisations need to be resilient and capitalise on new opportunities presented during COVID-19 to propel our organisations to greater heights.

VITAL Shared Services will rise to new heights, to deliver even more value to our public sector colleagues and to the people of Singapore.

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