Design-Led Innovation in the Public Sector

Manuel Sosa at INSEAD Knowledge: “When entering a government permit office, virtually everyone would prepare themselves for a certain amount of boredom and confusion. But resignation may well turn to surprise or even shock, if that office is Singapore’s Employment Pass Service Centre (EPSC), where foreign professionals go to receive their visa to work in the city-state. The ambience more closely resembles a luxury hotel lobby than a grim government agency, an impression reinforced by the roaming reception managers who greet arriving applicants, directing them to a waiting area with upholstered chairs and skyline views.

In a new case study, “Designing the Employment Pass Service Centre for the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore”, Prof. Michael Pich and I explore how even public organizations are beginning to use design to find and tap into innovation opportunities where few have thought to look. In the case of Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM), a design-led transformation of a single facility was the starting point of a drastic reconsideration of what a government agency could be.

Efficiency is not enough

Prior to opening the EPSC in July 2009, MOM’s Work Pass Division (WPD) had developed hyper-efficient methods to process work permits for foreign workers, who comprise approximately 40 percent of Singapore’s workforce. In fact, it was generally considered the most efficient department of its kind in the world. After 9/11, a mandatory-fingerprinting policy for white-collar workers was introduced, necessitating a standalone centre. The agency saw this as an opportunity to raise the efficiency bar even further.

Giving careful consideration to every aspect of the permit-granting process, the project team worked with a local vendor to overhaul the existing model. The proposal they ultimately presented to MOM assured almost unheard-of waiting times, as well as a more aesthetically pleasing look and feel….

Most public-sector organisations’ prickly interactions with the public can be explained with the simple fact that they lack competition. Government bodies are generally monopolies dispensing necessities, so on the whole they don’t feel compelled to agonise over their public face.

MOM and the Singapore government had a different idea. Aware that they were competing with other countries for top global talent, they recognised that the permit-granting process, in a very real sense, set the tone for foreign professionals’ entire experience of Singapore. Expats would be unlikely to remember precisely how long it took to get processed, but the quality of the service received would resonate in their minds and affect their impression of the country as a whole.

IDEO typically begins by concentrating on the user experience. In this case, in addition to observing and identifying what goes through the mind of a typical applicant during his or her journey in the existing system, the observation stage included talking to foreigners who were arriving in Singapore about their experience. IDEO discovered that professionals newly arrived in Singapore were embarking on an entirely new chapter of their lives, with all the expected stresses. The last thing they needed was more stress when receiving their permit. Hence, the EPSC entry hall is airy and free of clutter to create a sense of calm. The ESPC provides toys to keep kids entertained while their parents meet with agents and register for work passes. Visitors are always called by name, not number. Intimidating interview rooms were done away with in favour of open cabanas….In its initial customer satisfaction survey in 2010, the EPSC scored an average rating of 5.7 out of 6….(More)”