Friday 29 March 2013

Bringing social services to HDB towns

The recent plan to build 20 social service offices in Housing Board towns has cast a fresh spin on an old debate: whether there should be a "central brain" coordinating the "many helping hands" of social service agencies.
By Ong Hwee Hwee, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2013

THERE was a time when seeking government help was an uphill task, literally. Needy folk had to make their way to Thomson Road and walk up a small hill to the then Ministry of Social Affairs.

Over the years, the delivery of help has been decentralised.

The needy can now turn to one of the many agencies fanned out across Singapore, from the community development councils (CDCs) and family service centres (FSCs) to grassroots organisations and voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs).

Help will be brought even closer to the residents, when the new social service offices (SSOs) are set up across Housing Board towns. These SSOs - designed as one-stop help centres - will be ready in two to three years.

Residents now turn to their respective CDCs to apply to ComCare, the Government fund that provides short-term financial and social assistance of up to six months. CDCs also administer the long-term public assistance scheme.

In future, they can turn to SSOs. The time and cost savings can be significant, especially for those who now make regular trips to the CDCs to have their cases reviewed or help extended. Take the example of a resident who lives in Sengkang West, which falls under Central CDC. A trip to the CDC's main office in Toa Payoh is a bus ride of at least 45 minutes.

But the significance of the SSO goes beyond being a touchpoint in the network of help. It is its role as a "local" coordinator for social services that will have a larger impact.

Another helping hand?

THE SSO proposal is arguably the most serious attempt yet to coordinate the work of the "many helping hands" of social services active in every constituency - while stopping short of setting up a central coordinating agency.

It has been the Government's longstanding policy to augment direct assistance from government agencies with a patchwork of help from volunteer groups, grassroots leaders and the wider community.

This has prompted many calls over the years for the Government to take over more services, or have a central agency coordinate the work of the myriad agencies.

But the Government's view has been that some services are best delivered by community organisations which understand residents' needs, instead of creating a bloated bureaucracy to do that.

There were also concerns that centralisation would stifle the initiative and flexibility of local groups in responding to residents' needs.

The latest proposal straddles the middle ground in being both closer to the needy, and yet not too centralised, since they are meant to be located at the "town" level.

Singapore is carved out into 26 HDB towns, with mature and bigger towns like Jurong West, which has more than 253,000 HDB residents, and smaller and newer ones like Sembawang, which has about 68,000 residents living in public housing.

Under the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) plan, there will be one SSO in each of the bigger towns. The smaller ones may share one office.

Fifteen new SSOs will be set up. Five will be converted from the existing social assistance units that now administer the ComCare fund under the five CDCs.

By the end of this year, the first four will be built in HDB estates with a disproportionate number of poor and needy people. These are: Kreta Ayer, Jalan Besar, Jurong West and Bukit Panjang-Choa Chu Kang.

Social agency workers see merit in the SSO acting as a local coordinator. Coordinating services at the "township" level makes sense because the SSO, which will be in the same neighbourhood as other help groups, will have a more intimate knowledge of the residents' needs, and whether they are served by the various agencies.

A too "centralised approach" may not work because the scope is just too wide, said National Council of Social Service (NCSS) chief executive Ang Bee Lian.

For instance, there are more than 400 VWOs in Singapore offering a slew of programmes for groups as diverse as disadvantaged children and frail elderly.

The VWOs also operate FSCs. There are now 41 such centres, up from just four in 1992.

The CDCs also run a gamut of local help schemes - such as utility vouchers for low-income families and job matching - which are funded by corporate donations.

In Toa Payoh town alone, there are more than 20 VWOs, including Care Corner FSC, Lions Home for the Elders, Alzheimer's Disease Association and several senior activity centres.

Acting MSF Minister Chan Chun Sing sketched out in Parliament this month just what might change with SSOs: "We need the 20 different facilities to come together to coordinate their services, share their expertise and knowledge, and to also share some of the backend support to better deliver services to those living in Toa Payoh."

If Mr Chan's vision is carried out, SSOs can help social service agencies reap economies of scale in areas like human resources, finance and administration. They can even pool social workers.

But before they do so, the new SSO has to sort out its working relationship with the existing help groups - especially the FSCs, which are now the first stop for residents who need help with family or social issues, or referral services.

The MSF has outlined the broad principles, but details remain sketchy. Some VWOs apparently learnt about the proposal only after it was announced.

Ms Ang of NCSS suggests that the SSO should act as the first point of contact for financial cases. They should refer residents who face complex problems, such as family issues, to the social workers at the FSCs.

Owning the problem

HOW should the SSO go about coordinating services?

It can play the role of a "case manager", some suggest.

Currently, there is some information sharing among various groups in the same HDB town. But this usually happens only when there are complex cases, such as when they encounter clients who require the intervention of multiple agencies.

For instance, a stroke patient may need home nursing services, his family may need financial help if he is the sole breadwinner, and his children may benefit from kindergarten subsidies.

"There can be more information sharing. Right now, each group owns a part of the problem. There is no common strategy," said Mr Daniel Chien, chief operating officer of the five FSCs under Care Corner Singapore. "It is not clear who the main driver or case manager is, if the client is common to a few agencies."

That can lead to duplication. For instance, the different agencies may conduct separate home visits to assess a case, instead of organising a combined visit. The SSO can coordinate such efforts.

They can also organise regular meetings with groups active in a town to share trends. That would help groups identify potential problems early, instead of dealing with them when they happen.

"The current approach is more remedial, rather than preventive," said Mr Chien.

SSO as planner

THE SSO can also play a key role as a planner of social services in the HDB town.

Currently, staff from agencies like the FSCs would go on "community walks" - going around the estate to talk to residents - to gauge demand before they introduce new programmes. Sometimes, they would back up such visits with surveys. But these are usually small-scale surveys, sometimes conducted by volunteers.

"But a small survey doesn't tell the full story. It offers only a sampling of views at best," said Mr Chien.

This is where the SSO can help by leveraging on MSF's resources to conduct more meaningful surveys and research on social service needs of the neighbourhood.

Some also hope that the SSO will have the mandate the VWOs lack to coordinate efforts beyond the social service sector.

Some residents may face more complex problems that involve a few ministries. For instance, some may have housing issues; some with foreign spouses may need help from the immigration authorities, said Ms Grace Lee, centre director of Care Corner FSC in Toa Payoh.

While many of those interviewed say that services can be better coordinated, some caution against making the SSOs the only gateway to help.

The resident should be able to choose which touchpoint he wants to turn to, whether it is a VWO, FSC or religious organisations, say some social workers.
The plan on the drawing board looks promising. But how it pans out will hinge on its implementation. What Mr Chan said about social policy is just as true of the plan for SSOs: "Delivery is as important as policy."

New Social Service Offices can better help needy: Chan Chun Sing
Channel NewsAsia, 31 Mar 2013

Acting Minister for Social and Family Development, Chan Chun Sing, said the new Social Service Offices or SSOs, would serve to increase the number of "touch points" to better help the needy.

He reiterated that there was no overlap between the work of Family Service Centres or FSCs and the SSOs.

Mr Chan said: "The FSC is very good at delivering services, providing counselling, providing help to people. If you look at it, the SSO is more like a co-ordinator. They might not be providing the direct services but they must make sure that different VWOs, FSCs, and other help agencies integrate their help together."

Mr Chan was speaking at a recording of Channel NewsAsia's programme "Ask Minister".

On the topic of benefits for single parents, he said he fully understood their concerns.

"I grew up in a single-parent family. My parents were divorced when I was very young. It wasn't easy because my mother had to work two jobs to bring us up. In the morning, she was a machine operator, in the evening she was helping to clean up the offices," said Mr Chan.

He added: "Policies are a reflection of the societal norms. And I think if we have the support of the society, then progressively, we'll be able to move on this issue, because different people have different perspectives on the issue."

He assured single parents the ministry will consider the child's needs, and also advised them to see which assistance package is suitable for the child.


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