Prime Ministers Office of Singapore
in the Public Service
Can Design Thinking result in breakthrough solutions for challenges facing the public service?
Singapore is recognized around the world as one of the most modern and efficiently run countries. The Public Service Division is committed to fostering innovation and enabling change in all governmental agencies. One key strategy in this effort is the empowerment of all public service officers to identify opportunities and solutions for service and operational improvements. While PSD had many processes and systems for harnessing staff suggestions for creating incremental improvements they desired an approach that would result in more breakthrough solutions. They desired to trial the Design Thinking Process across a range of ministries, an approach they they hoped would result in more breakthrough solutions.
Objectives of the program
The program had multiple objectives:
Trial an innovation process by the various government agencies to generate breakthrough ideas to the complex challenges they faced.
Train a select group of public officers in using the Design Thinking mindset, tools and process.
Garner support from the ministries to adopt Design Thinking as the basis for the innovation process across the government.
The 4-month long action-learning program consisted of 4 three-day in-person workshops, project teamwork and real-time coaching between workshops. 9 teams from 7 different ministries learned the design thinking process, practices and mindsets from experts. Teams of participants came from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministries of Defense, Education, Finance, Health, Information, Communications and the Arts, Manpower, and Trade and Industry. Team members included front line officers, researchers and regulatory and policy officers. The complex challenges they worked on in the program included reducing time spent dealing with delinquent taxpayers, the retention of young public service officers, strategic direction for a new employment office, and more responsive industry policy creation. The program workshops were organized around the 5 phases of the innovation process:
Workshop 1 – Learning
Experts shared qualitative research techniques for uncovering unmet needs of stakeholders. The teams practiced these and created their research plan for the following weeks.
Workshop 2 – Analysis/Synthesis
Experts shared various analysis and synthesis tools to gain insights from the findings the teams gathered in the Learning Phase. The teams used these tools to begin to draw insights from their research findings. They created a work plan to complete their analysis and synthesis over the following weeks in preparation for the Envisioning workshop.
Workshop 4 – Envisioning
Experts shared methods for envisioning new product or service concepts based on insights from their analysis and synthesis work. The teams then envisioned multiple breakthrough concepts to address the challenges they were working on. These concepts were then turned into prototypes that could be tested by the teams in the following weeks before the deployment workshop.
Workshop 5 – Deployment
Prior to the workshop, the teams had tested and refined their breakthrough concepts. They then created formal presentations and presented them to their leadership and peers from their ministries at an open forum. They also presented their perspective on the value of the Design Thinking process they had experienced.
During each workshop, team members assumed different team roles; lead, facilitator, loyal skeptic and explorer. Working in a team of people from different backgrounds from within their home ministries resulted in many learning opportunities for the participants and helped them develop the team collaboration skills the Design Thinking process requires.
The design and delivery of the program was a collaboration between Clarence Chia of the Public Service Division, the eminently talented Chris Hosmer, a string of Design Thinking experts from Continuum and myself.
6 of the 9 teams envisioned and tested breakthrough solutions for the challenges they faced, many of which were subsequently implemented in their ministries. Personnel from 7 different ministries had firsthand experience in using the Design Thinking and are now advocates for the process back in their ministries. The Pubic Service Division has since embraced Design Thinking as a core innovation process across the government and has supported training and adoption of Design Thinking across the government.
Working on challenges that were important to each team was key. The learning they received was directly and immediately applicable for them.
Real time coaching from Design Thinking experts enabled the teams to move through the process in an efficient and timely manner. This also resulted in a high level of quality of the final concepts they produced.