Case Study: Singapore Public Service SSO – Part 1
SSON is pleased to share with our readers a series of articles contributed by Clarence Ti, Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Public Service’s shared services organization [Vital.org won Honourable Mention in the 2007 SSON Excellence Awards for "Best New Shared Services"]. In this series Ti explores four key milestones along the shared services journey: aiming for Service Excellence; developing Operational Excellence; focusing on Productivity Growth; and Engaging Staff.
The Formative Years – Our Journey Towards Service Excellence
Stories from a Government Shared Services Centre (Singapore) Part 1
From the C-suite perspective: Narrowing the divide: The helpdesk morphs from a GP Clinic to an A&E department, and Account Managers build social capital with customers.
Happy Customers. Engaged Employees. It takes time and effort. Regretfully, it does not happen automatically. Our journey as a shared services centre for the Singapore government over the last four years made us revisit the theme of service excellence again and again. It made us challenge old ways of doing things, and prodded us to re-examine how to organise our organisation so that we could better respond to customer needs. This is a story of that journey, sometimes rocky, sometimes surprising, mainly wonderful!
But first – a little about us. Vital.org was formally launched in July 2006 as a captive shared services centre for the Singapore Public Service, serving initially just shy of 20 agencies in areas such as payroll administration, HR services, finance services (primarily dealing with vendor payments) and learning & development services. Today, Vital.org serves over 100 distinct government agencies in the original service lines as well as new areas, such as asset management and travel management. By 2010, over a million transactions have passed through our hands, organised along nearly 600 distinct lines of services. Vital.org has a staff of close to 500 people serving a population of some 80,000 public servants.
Abandoning emails as the primary way to receive jobs
When we were first formed, work instructions from our customers were received primarily via emails. Since many of our officers were formerly from these customer agencies, it was considered the norm. Every service company that has to scale up, will have to overcome this challenge at some point. The risk emails pose to service excellence is well-known. Emails can be left unattended for lengthy periods or might not be responded to at all. This could be due to the officer’s oversight, or because the same job was sent to a few people; the officer could be on leave, or might have left the organisation. We don’t have a culture where supervisors have access to their officers’ emails, so the supervisors were often left none the wiser. We were not even sure how many work instructions we received annually. Some organisations create generic email accounts if their work volume is small, with duty officers manning these emails. Even this solution may be overwhelmed by volume. In time, we invested in an online case management system where we asked our customers to log work instructions. We discovered that we receive over 40,000 work instructions annually with each instruction potentially involving hundreds of transactions to be processed. A service escalation framework was then established where jobs that were not completed within three working days were brought to the attention of the section manager, who could determine cause and remedy. By the seventh working day, it hits the department head; by the 10th, it hits the directors; and by the 20th, it hits the chief executive’s desk. You would think that this would be quite effective and that the story should have ended here. But no, customers now present different feedback. They argue that in some cases, they need work instructions to be done quickly, perhaps within a day or two, so that payroll adjustments can be made in time for the next payday.
Our solution took a surprising turn, and we took quite an unusual step with our helpdesk.
The helpdesk morphs from a GP Clinic to an A&E Department
Our Helpdesk was originally formed for a different purpose. Sometimes the 80,000 public servants whom we serve have a question about their pay or their leave or their personnel records; or they are trying to use some of the available employee self-service modules, and so they call our backroom officers who are in the midst of processing the thousands of transactions that cross their desks. This poses two problems for the organisation – first, the backroom officers get distracted and inevitably errors creep in. Second, they are not always there, as they could be in meetings or out briefing new appointees or advising retiring officers of their pension options. We have all heard of real world examples of phone lines that no one picks up and voicemails that are always full. We wanted to prevent this from happening to us. So, a helpdesk was formed with full time officers with the usual suite of statistics on dropped calls and recorded conversations. Of the calls that come into the helpdesk, only 10-20% needed to be sent to the backroom for the specialists to answer. So, like most helpdesks in the market, ours was the equivalent of a General Practitioners’ Clinic, taking care of the usual colds and headaches. For a while.
We still had this problem of urgent work requests that came in through our case management system and that our service escalation framework was unable to respond well to. So we created an "Emergency" button that allowed customers to indicate to us that this was a rush job. Clearly, our backroom officers who were processing transactions, giving briefings and advisories, dealing with service providers on medical screening or training providers for courses, can’t be checking for work instructions in real time. So we morphed the helpdesk into an A&E Department where three times a day, they would receive from the system the list of emergency cases which they ran through. Where necessary, they’d call the customer to ascertain the nature of the emergency. This added an estimated 4,500-6,000 work instructions to their annual workload. Some of these work instructions have a workflow that would require the case to flow through several internal departments (e.g. HR first, then Payroll) and the helpdesk would accompany the cases through the various departments. We improved our responsiveness.
Account Managers were born
With close to 600 lines of service and over 100 customer agencies, we resemble a manufacturing company providing products to businesses. Some of our customer agencies are quite large, with tens of thousands of employees while some are quite small with scores of employees. For over 40 of our customers, we began to have full time account managers. These managers maintain an overall view of the account and are the primary points of contact. Our account managers are the customers’ advocates, our asset to understanding our customers’ pain points. One of the main drawbacks of being a shared services centre is that our employees are no longer as plugged in to the happenings in our customer agencies as when they were part of those organisations. Account managers are our investment in building social capital with our customers so that we can, if not bridge this divide, at least narrow the divide.
Borrowing customer’s directors
Being a captive shared services centre does come with an advantage that is often overlooked. We are able to borrow customer agency directors to lead inter-agency process improvement teams. I can’t say enough how deeply we appreciate this. The willingness of these directors of finance and personnel, from our customer agencies, to come forward to lead teams that make recommendations on service-wide changes to policies, process and systems, allows us to achieve service improvements in areas where we have to battle the weight of history and precedence or simply sheer system inertia. For us, these inter-agency process improvement teams are like a health screening where we take pulse and blood pressure, x-rays and EEGs and then make recommendations to lifestyle changes. Done every few years, this health screening not only helps our customers relate to us better, they also make any recommendation more credible and any service enhancement more meaningful.
The journey has just begun
These changes, wrought over the first four years, are just basic building blocks. Many organizations, whether they are in shared services or not, have taken similar, if not identical, paths in the quest for service excellence. There will be other challenges in the days forward. We have to be our own harshest critic so that we can be a learning organisation.
To read more about Vital.org, please see: "Strategy questions from inside a captive shared services centre"; and "Building a managed travel program across the government in Singapore"
About Mr. Clarence Ti
Clarence Ti was appointed as the Chief Executive of Vital.org on 2 January 2010.
In the public service, he has served in the Economic Development Board in both Singapore and the United States, where he was Director of the San Francisco Centre; the Singapore Land Authority, where he was Director of Land Business & Management; and the Ministry of Law, where he was Director of Strategic Planning. During his career, he has served in areas of investment promotion, business & operations management, planning & co-ordination, and legislative & policy reviews.
He holds both a Bachelor of Science degree with High Honours and a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA with distinction from INSEAD. He is also a Certified Financial Analyst.
Vital.org, a department under Ministry of Finance, was formally launched in July 2006, as part of the Singapore Public Sector’s effort to aggregate common administrative services and reap economies of scale to bring about greater business value for the whole of Government. It currently serves more than 100 Ministries, Departments, Organs of State and Statutory Boards in Singapore. The suite of services includes finance services, human resource services, payroll and claims services, learning and development services and travel management services. Vital.org won the Honourable Mention Award under the Best New Shared Service Organisation (under 3 years in operation) Award during the Annual Asia Pacific Shared Services & Outsourcing Awards 2007. Visit www.vital.gov.sg for more information.