Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Municipal Services Office to open on 1 October 2014

Bridging gap is priority for municipal services unit
Grace Fu wants to improve interaction between public and govt agencies
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2014

THE minister tasked with heading a new Municipal Services Office (MSO) to be set up on Oct 1 says her priority is to bridge the communication gap between the public and government agencies providing these services.

In her first comments since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in his National Day Rally on Aug 17 that she would be heading the MSO, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu told reporters yesterday morning: "We must be more effective in public service delivery, we must also make it easier for the public to get in touch with government agencies. So this will be my guiding principle.

"I will spend the next six months focusing on the interaction between the public and government agencies, starting with the eight agencies that we have listed, because I believe this is what ordinary Singaporeans would face most frequently," said Ms Fu, who is also Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, and Foreign Affairs.

"It's also about how we reply to them. So if we receive complaints, how long before we acknowledge and then how long before we close the issue and get back to them," she added.

The eight agencies Ms Fu referred to are the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, national water agency PUB, National Parks Board, HDB, Land Transport Authority, Singapore Police Force, People's Association and National Environment Agency.

PM Lee announced the setting up of the MSO to deal with a lack of inter-agency coordination in municipal matters. He cited the example of a walkway in Bukit Gombak - the site of the now infamous discarded fishball stick - that was not cleaned due to such a problem.

But Ms Fu stressed that the MSO would not be an "omnibus organisation". "If the public already knows that certain (things) are done by certain agencies which have the expertise, there is no reason we should create a bureaucracy to pull these services into a central unit."

The MSO will not cause further delays by adding a layer of bureaucracy or require the public to learn a new number to call for help, she added.

It will be housed under the Ministry of National Development (MND), which said in a statement yesterday that the goal is to "improve the Government's overall coordination and delivery of municipal services".

When asked why the MSO has not involved town councils, Ms Fu said that is an area still under consideration. "But we need town councils to cooperate, obviously."

Details of how the MSO will be run, including how feedback can be gathered from the public, are being ironed out. But members of the public can contact MND on 1800-323-3331 or e-mail mnd_hq@mnd.gov.sg in the interim.

What municipal services unit aims to achieve

WE REFER to the recent letters on the Municipal Services Office (MSO) and appreciate the feedback and interest shown.

The MSO will be set up on Oct 1 to improve the delivery of municipal services. These are services that pertain to the upkeep and improvement of the communal living environment. Examples of such common issues include managing the cleanliness of public areas, horticulture maintenance, and maintaining and repairing transport infrastructure.

For a start, the MSO will work with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, HDB, Land Transport Authority, National Environment Agency, National Parks Board, PUB, People's Association and Singapore Police Force to improve the management of public feedback.

In the longer term, the MSO will expand its scope to review service standards and improve operational processes, particularly for services where multiple agencies are involved. The MSO will also explore working with more agencies, including town councils.

The MSO does not displace government agencies in the provision of municipal services. These agencies will continue to take charge of the operations and customer management functions under their respective domains.

We are mindful that the MSO does not create another layer of bureaucracy and lead to inefficiency. Instead, we will work hand-in-hand with the agencies to improve the public's experience on municipal services.

The public can continue to provide feedback through the existing hotlines of the various agencies that they are familiar with. Some members of the public have expressed frustration in not knowing which agency to contact when faced with some municipal problems. We will address this problem in due course.

The MSO seeks to pursue a stronger citizen-centric approach to improve the Government's delivery of municipal services. We welcome public feedback and suggestions on how the MSO can improve the delivery of municipal services and in shaping the set-up in the MSO.

Christine Yap (Ms)
Director, Corporate Communications
Ministry of National Development
ST Forum, 30 Aug 2014

Who you gonna call?
A lack of inter-government agency cooperation is failing to solve everyday problems such as noisy birds and fishball sticks left lying on the ground. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced a new government office to deal with this. Insight examines if this is the right fix.
By Tham Yuen-c And Rachel Au-yong, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2014

THOUSANDS of noisy mynahs roost every day in trees outside the Jurong West flat of leasing executive Clement Lim.

Mr Lim has complained to several agencies to get the problem solved - but so far, it has been three years of looking for a permanent solution, and the squawking continues.

One agency, National Parks Board (NParks), did swing into action and pruned several trees near his house, but the mynah nuisance continues and Mr Lim says: "Either get rid of the birds or prune the trees, but if neither happens regularly, then the problem is still there."

The issue of who fixes such problems was put in the spotlight during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech, when he made a now-famous reference to a fishball stick.

Mr Lee cited such a stick, lying along a pathway in Bukit Gombak, to illustrate how the lack of cooperation between government agencies had led to a public area not being cleaned thoroughly.

The example came from Mayor Low Yen Ling, who tells Insight: "Different agencies with different roles may look after a common area with little interaction. Due to the number of parties involved, we spend a fair amount of time and effort coordinating the agencies to get things sorted out."

The anecdote was also among the top three most-read stories on The Straits Times online, following the rally.

During his speech, Mr Lee announced the setting up of a new office under the Ministry of National Development to coordinate eight public agencies - the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), national water agency PUB, NParks, Housing Board, the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the police, People's Association and the National Environment Agency (NEA) - so they can work in concert to address such issues.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, helped by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, will oversee the Municipal Services Office (MSO).

Scale of problem

WHILE it might seem a tad drastic for the top man in the country to devote important speech-time to a stick on the ground, the issue of cross-agency cooperation has plagued citizens and businesses for years. Indeed, even before this latest reference, PM Lee has been highlighting examples over the years.

MPs who spoke to Insight say the problem is not widespread - issues about the lack of inter- agency cooperation figure in less than 10 per cent of the complaints they handle. But such cases can be protracted since they require working out a solution between multiple parties.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, for example, has been trying for the past year to get the NParks and LTA to work with his town council to coordinate grass-cutting schedules, to make sure an open field between the Tampines Expressway and a block of flats - with different tracts managed by the different parties - is trimmed frequently enough to stop mosquitoes breeding.

"Even as an MP, I get bounced around. Imagine (what it is like) for the public. It irritates those who are affected when the problem doesn't get resolved for a long time," he says.

This is especially so since the issues affect the living environment, say MPs. For some MPs, complaints about noise and cleanliness alone make up 10 per cent of the feedback they get.The Ministry of National Development says it will unveil more details on the MSO in the coming weeks.

What's the issue?

SO WHY do public agencies have a problem working together?

Over the years, the Government has put in place various policies and schemes to break down the bureaucratic barriers that impede inter-agency cooperation.

The No Wrong Door policy, introduced in 2004, requires civil servants to put a member of the public in touch with the right agency. In cases where the query or feedback applies to several agencies, the agency where the query was first made has to contact all the relevant parties and come up with their responses.

Internally, there are also schemes like Zero In Process, which streamlines the process of resolving cross-agency issues.

The Public Service Division could not reply to queries from Insight by press time.

But according to various ministers who have spoken about public agency service delivery, things have improved.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also in charge of the civil service, gave front- line agencies and public officers a pat on the back when he said in Parliament in May that they had done "good work in the last two years to improve service delivery and policy responsiveness".

Mr Lee also acknowledged during his National Day Rally speech that some progress has been made, but added that "we have not arrived yet".

MPs agree, and say that more can be done. Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng, for example, feels the No Wrong Door policy has only made good on the first part - passing on feedback to the intended party.

Where it has fallen short is in closing the loop, he says, explaining that since the agency receiving the complaint may not be the one responsible for the issue, it may not be motivated to follow up on the complainant.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser reckons the problem could lie with how an agency's performance is measured.

"Organisations and staff are evaluated on whether they have met their key performance indicators (KPIs), and if cross-agency cooperation does not help them to meet their KPIs, it is quite understandable that they would be assigned low priority," says Dr Tan.

The practice of outsourcing - with different agencies hiring their own private contractors - can further complicate the situation.

At the Tampines field, for example, grass on different tracts of land is trimmed at different times by different contractors hired by the various parties. "They might all be cutting the grass every six months, but the six months may not coincide, so the whole patch is never fully cut at any one time," Mr Baey says.

Dr Tan adds that contractors, paid to perform specific tasks, are "even further removed from any responsibility to cooperate with other government agencies".

"(The contractor's) KPI is to fulfil precisely those things, and nothing else," he says.

Former Nominated MP and NUS sociologist Paulin Straughan suggests over-specialisation could be another factor.

"We may have specialised too much, and in some instances, we have encouraged a bureaucratic culture which encourages us to only focus on what we are officially expected to do, and therefore, negate the merits of a holistic approach to management," she says.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah cites the example of getting someone to remove bicycles haphazardly chained at MRT stations.

"Who do you contact? SMRT if it's in the station compound? NParks if it's been chained to a tree? Town council if it's to a lamp-post? LTA if it's to a roadside railing?" she asks.

Fixing the problem

BUT will the MSO be the answer?

Some might say that the new office will merely add yet another layer of bureaucracy.

A jaded Jalan Kayu resident, Mr Chris Lau, who once spent eight hours calling the AVA, which handles animal-related issues, waste contractor Sembcorp, the Zoo and Jurong Bird Park to help remove two large eagles that had fallen into his balcony after a mid-air fight, says: "I doubt they will give us an immediate response, and if we have to wait for them to call back, it will be the same problem.

For the MSO to work, everything must be made as simple as possible, says Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad.

"I have one wish: that the MSO has a single hotline, single e-mail and single app for feedback. The more seamless it is, the better."

Getting a minister to pick up after Singaporeans - as some might simplistically describe the role of overseeing the MSO - may also seem extreme, especially when some of the issues can be solved easily with a bit more civic consciousness.

On the infamous fishball stick, many online commentators said the resident who saw it could have just picked it up and thrown it away.

However, Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua says having a minister lead the MSO is "an indication of PM's seriousness in wanting to plug this gap".

MPs who spoke to Insight agree that the office may succeed in getting the different agencies to work together, where other schemes and policies have failed, if it is given enough bite.

Ms Phua adds that the office should have "clarity in scope, a shared vision, efficiency and effectiveness as key performance indicators, and sufficient authority to push through sound solutions".

Put in the context of the Government's push for Singapore to become a smart nation that is the "best place to live, work and play", the MSO could well also be an important piece needed to complete the puzzle.

Says Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Gillian Koh: "You do still need different agencies with different specialisations. But there must be a way for the agencies to be 'tacked' together. This is what we mean by being a 'smart city' - integration will also allow for innovation, effectiveness and efficiency."

Dr Straughan also thinks the MSO could promote a greater sense of civic consciousness.

"It shouldn't be yet another office to go to for complaints. Rather, I expect the MSO officers to sit down with (the citizen) and work through the problem together.

"A good model is one where the MSO can discern which issues can be managed locally by residents, and which need to be escalated. If done right, it will empower residents to take charge of their community."

The Government sees the delivery of seamless service by public agencies as a way to build trust with citizens, especially at a time when strategic shifts in policies are being made. Last year, PM Lee stressed the importance of this while speaking to public service leaders at an annual planning session.

At the end of the day, says NUS political scientist Reuben Wong, it is really about running Singapore more efficiently and providing better service to Singaporeans.

The MSO, then, could possibly help extend good service delivery from the ministerial level, all the way to the ground - even, right where a dratted fishball stick might be lying.


Our ministries are efficient if it involves only one ministry. If it is inter-ministry, you will find that no one wants to lead.

– Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) on how the MSO would help residents deal with cross-agency municipal issues


It took seven years from envisioning Tampines as a cycling town, to it being declared one. In between, lots of frustration to the extent that I almost wanted to give up!

– Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC), recounting the cumbersome process of dealing with multiple agencies to see through her idea


In an uncoordinated arrangement, it could take the feedback a while to get to the relevant agency. The delay could discourage people from giving feedback in the first place.

– NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser on how the MSO could improve feedback mechanisms


At this point, we can afford to let MPs rise above the minute municipal details at the tactical level and focus on the strategic and financial governance aspects of estate management. There are still the softer and increasingly complex community issues to deal with.

– IPS senior research fellow Gillian Koh on whether the MSO would erode the yardstick of evaluating MPs on how they handle municipal issues from day to day


There is nothing wrong with the No Wrong Door policy but sometimes you open more doors than you expect... More importantly, the MSO closes the gap on interactions between resident and government.

– Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) on how the MSO could work where other processes have not

Cross-agency coordination: Efforts over the years
By Rachel Au-yong, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2014

2000: Zero-in-Process (Zip)

Zip is set up by the Public Service to make ministries more aware that the public sees the Government as one entity. It aims to reduce the number of agencies they approach for help.

During the Budget debate in 2002, then-MP for Marine Parade Lim Hwee Hua says: "There (is) frequently great reluctance (among agencies) to take the perspective of the end-user or of another agency as it may mean having to go the extra mile."

Then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong points to Zip as an effort to eradicate this: "We are not quite satisfied with what we have achieved and we will try our best to do better."

2004: No Wrong Door

To cut red tape, the Public Service introduces the No Wrong Door approach. All agencies must put the public in contact with the correct agency, so they won't be shuffled from one to another.

Then-Senior Minister of State for Health and Information, Communication and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan says: "Many a time, when faced with an issue that did not belong to an agency's purview, the agency would simply tell the citizen that he was knocking on the wrong door, and the poor citizen might have to go from door to door until he found the right one."

2004: Is the Duck a boat or a car?

In his first National Day Rally speech, PM Lee recalls how regulators took two years to figure out if a tour operator's "Duck" transport - a reconstructed American amphibious military vehicle - was a boat or a car, and the operator waited two years for a licence.

Urging the Government to have a mindset change, he says: "We have to rethink all our problems, big and small. Nothing should ever be set in stone."

November 2006: Walls coming down

In an addendum to the President's Address, then-Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean tells the House to expect better inter-agency cooperation in the Public Service, and more rounded policies.

The walls are coming down because the service often has to handle work that does not fall neatly into specific portfolios, he says, adding: "A whole-of-government approach is critical in ensuring that these cross-cutting issues are addressed coherently."

2012: First Responder Protocol

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) is the first agency to use the First Responder Protocol, an "improvement" on the No Wrong Door policy.

The first agency to receive feedback must draw the required expertise from across agencies and come up with a solution. It must then close the loop with the citizen who raised the problem.

Announcing this during the Committee of Supply debates, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean acknowledges it is a complex area, saying: "People will have different views on, for example, whether a bird singing in the morning is noise or a happy reminder of nature."

March 2013: Department of Public Cleanliness set up

With the job of cleaning public areas split among different agencies - one for footpaths, another for vacant land and yet another for drains - the National Environment Agency (NEA) is put in charge of cleaning all public areas except public housing estates, which remain under town councils.

During the Budget debate, then-Senior Minister of State (Environment and Water Resources) Grace Fu announces a new Department of Public Cleanliness in NEA "to better manage cleaning contracts, improve service standards and to improve our responsiveness to public feedback".

October 2013: The snake and seamless service

At an annual planning seminar, PM Lee tells public servants to present a seamless experience to people or risk losing their trust.

He relates a "not so serious but telling example" of a member of the public calling the NEA about a snake near Tanglin International Centre. The officer who took the call asked whether the snake was in a public park or in the building, and even which direction it was moving in.

He was trying to work out whether NParks, national water agency PUB, AVA or the police should deal with the snake.

In the end, he called non-governmental organisation Acres (Animal Concerns Research and Education Society) for help.

How it works in soccer city
By Rachel Au-yong, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2014

THE new Municipal Services Office (MSO) could take its cue from the city that recently hosted the soccer World Cup, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Its Rio Operations Centre uses traffic cameras, weather graphs and energy reports to monitor municipal crises, and also help prevent them. A team of 400 officers work round the clock, monitoring real-time data on 300 screens.

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited Rio as a city "(bridging) inter-agency boundaries and serv(ing) the public in an integrated way".

The centre was set up after Rio was hit by floods and landslides in April 2010, in which 200 people were killed and over 15,000 left homeless. Mayor Eduardo Paes admitted the city's preparedness had been "less than zero".

Today the centre is touted as an example of how a "smart city" uses technology to, in this case, streamline the functions of 30 municipal and state agencies.

The city's various agencies - utilities, police, fire department and the health authorities, among others - work with technology giant IBM to monitor everything from rubbish collection to disease outbreaks. The centre has helped cut the city's response time to emergencies by 30 per cent.

While Singapore's MSO would not be as large-scale - The Straits Times understands it will deal primarily with noise and cleanliness issues - the Rio centre's data-sharing example shows how agencies here could be more efficient. More likely, the MSO will oversee all eight - perhaps directing relevant ones to sort out a problem from the outset.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) notes that the MSO can eliminate residents' frustration if its roles are clearly defined.

But she asks: "Is it to act as buffer or middleman between government agencies? Or is it to coordinate policy across government agencies and reform the way things are done and delivered on the ground?"

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) hopes the MSO will eventually provide a hotline for municipal issues, much like the ones in New York City and Taipei.

But he warns that it is unlikely to be a "call me, cure me" agency. "Ultimately, we have to build a strong sense of ownership in the areas we are staying. Only then will residents take pride in their environment and suggest ideas to continuously improve it, which is more sustainable."

Municipal Services Office to provide single point of contact for public
By Monica Kotwani, Channel NewsAsia, 22 Sep 2014

The new Municipal Services Office's (MSO) immediate focus when it is set up next month is to have a single point of contact for the public to provide feedback and work out a standard method of processing the feedback, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu said on Monday (Sep 22).

Ms Fu also provided some details about the MSO, after visiting the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to get a better idea of its key municipal issues.

The eight agencies under the new MSO currently have different operating systems to collate and address feedback from the public.

Ms Fu, who is also Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said the first order of business is to work out a standard protocol of processing all feedback.

"So even if you call a particular agency on a matter that is not relating to that agency, we will have an understanding amongst the public service officers on the way to capture the information, the feedback and the way to handle the feedback and to transfer it to another, the relevant agency and to also start tracking," she said.

Ms Fu said this is to operationalise the Government's 'no wrong-door' policy when it comes to providing feedback on municipal matters.

The MSO will put members of the public in contact with the relevant agency for their feedback or queries, instead of them being shuffled around to multiple agencies before they get the right one.

Ms Fu had previously said the various channels of the agencies will still be open for the majority of the straightforward feedback.

The MSO will also develop a smartphone application to address the public's need for a single point of contact, especially in situations where they do not know which agency to call.

"LTA, for example, says a large proportion of feedback from the public is to do with vehicle or policy-related issues, and that means it is clear-cut, and under the direct purview of the LTA. Only a small percentage is to do with municipal issues," Ms Fu said.

She added that when it comes to the maintenance of road infrastructure, there could be some cross-boundaries between the LTA, Housing Development Board (HDB) or town councils.

"This is one example where we could use technology like the app. If the public can tell us, take the picture, and really do not need to find out whether this is an LTA or HDB land, and we can then go on to solve the problem by the relevant agency," Ms Fu said.

Ms Fu intends to visit all eight agencies to get a better idea of the issues on the ground and where the MSO can make the most impact.

National Day Rally 2014
One-stop municipal issues office opens
Municipal Services Office (MSO)
Municipal Services Office launches smartphone app for feedback

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