It could be a postbox, relaying messages. Or a back-end office, getting agencies to work together behind the scenes. Or it could do both: Have a public hotline, integrate back-end processes and account to the public for what it does.
The Municipal Services Office (MSO) will open its doors in less than one month's time, on Oct 1.
But for a government body which is expected to have a big say on how public services are delivered, the lack of information about the office itself is uncharacteristic.
Many Singaporeans, by now, know how it started - the curious story of how a tiny fishball stick launched the municipal office is now carved in our nation's annals.
A resident had spotted the offending stick on a walkway in Bukit Gombak near the MRT station. When it hadn't been cleared two days later, the resident complained. Enter Mayor Low Yen Ling. It took many meetings to find out why the stick wasn't cleared.
It turned out that the walkway came under the purview of different agencies: On its left is a slope, under the National Environment Agency (NEA). In the middle is a park connector, under the National Parks Board (NParks). On the right is a pavement next to the road, under the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
Each agency's cleaners had their own cleaning schedules. The fishball stick was on the right side, which was cleaned only every two days.
The issue drew the attention of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who devoted precious time during his annual National Day Rally to announce the setting up of this new municipal office, precisely to coordinate such services as picking up fishball-stick litter.
What remains now is for the Ministry of National Development (MND), which oversees the office, to flesh out the details.
Both the ministry and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, who is heading the office, have dropped hints on the shape the office might take.
Ms Fu, who is also Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said two weeks ago that her priority will be to improve communications between the public and the Government.
A letter from MND published in The Straits Times last Saturday said that the office will "improve the management of public feedback" for a start.
In the longer term, it will "review service standards and improve operational processes", promising to "pursue a stronger citizen-centric approach to improve the Government's delivery of municipal services".
This carefully worded civil service jargon gives some clues on the three forms the MSO could eventually take.
Feedback and action
First, it could be a public communications and feedback management office.
Indeed, this was what Ms Fu said: "I would like to bridge the gap, the communications between the members of the public with public service departments that are providing municipal services...
"I will spend the next six months starting to focus on the interaction of public feedback between the public as well as government agencies."
However, the MSO will be duplicating the work of the Ministry of Communications and Information, which oversees government communications, and the ministry's feedback unit Reach, if it limits itself to being a communications and feedback manager.
The public expects more.
The MSO has to at least expand its scope to be a back-end office that cracks its whip to dismantle inter-agency walls.
This is the second form that it could take and it is where it could make a big difference.
Inter-agency walls exist because of the way job scopes are written and budgets allocated.
When I was a civil servant heading the Feedback Unit in 2006, I attempted to compile a list of government agencies to approach in case of public complaints on bird droppings. It was bird flu season.
My list was mind-blogging. It depended on where the bird droppings were found, like the fishball stick. The complaints would go to agencies such as town councils, the LTA and NParks.
The timing mattered too. The Maritime and Port Authority would handle bird droppings found on the banks of Marina Bay, but only until the Marina Barrage was completed. After that, Marina Bay would become a reservoir under national water agency PUB.
From the fishball-stick story, it's clear things have not changed too much since 2006.
With responsibilities divided so clearly, there is little motivation for public officials to spend their time or use resources to solve problems in areas that are not under their direct charge.
But once they have been told to work as a team, most will not drag their feet and that is where we have to give credit where it is due.
The abundance of inter-agency task forces shows that public officials can work together when they set their minds to it. The cross-agency committees to fight dengue, combat human trafficking, handle haze and promote pedestrian and cyclist safety are some recent examples that come to mind.
Besides inter-agency task forces, some government agencies have also been appointed lead agencies in specific areas, like the NEA for public cleanliness and Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority for animal welfare. There are many other committees that operate away from the public's eye.
The inter-agency approach can be extended to the MSO, where there are permanent staff from agencies working within the office to ensure that these agencies do not shirk their responsibilities.
But regardless of the format, it will be self-defeating for the MSO to operate as a back-end outfit without the public knowing the distance it went to solve problems. That is why the third model is worth consideration: The MSO has to provide direct services to the public.
And since Mr Lee mentioned the Rio Operations Centre when the MSO was announced, the bar has been set rather high. The mega operation centre was set up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2010 to ensure that the city's public services are streamlined and responsive to its residents' needs.
At least two MPs here - Mr Ang Wei Neng and Mr Zaqy Mohamad - have suggested a public hotline.
Ms Fu appears open to the idea, saying: "I envision some form of one-stop (service), but it's not the only one."
But she was equally reluctant to add another level of bureaucracy, and rightly so. The MSO should be another supervisory body or reporting channel, but it should be kept lean to avoid duplicating the layers of bureaucracy.
This would require the MSO to have hotlines and direct links with the public; a mandate to get agencies to work together; and be accountable to the public for the service it provides.
If the MSO had been running, the fishball-stick problem would have been solved easily, because its staff would have been able to direct the nearest team of cleaners to pick up the litter, regardless of which agency the cleaners were hired by or which areas they were tasked to clean. The agency would then report back to the public and the relevant agencies on the resolution.
It comes down to this: The MSO will have to decide how much it wants to interact with the public and find the right way to grease the cogs of government machinery without adding even more layers of bureaucracy.
Whatever form the MSO takes, there are some imperatives it should not ignore.
First, the phone lines and e-mail account of the office have to be manned by officials who can either make decisions or give advice. It cannot be just a message-taking service or postbox.
MSO staff have to be different from public officials who say "don't quote me" or "I hear you". It has to be a "take-charge" and "can-do" body.
Next, it has to have a proper system of tracking complaints and getting back to the complainants.
For example, the Government now replies to e-mail within three to five working days, with full replies within three weeks. The MSO can do better, especially for municipal issues like noise which affect residents' well-being.
Finally, the office can embark on some form of public education drive not just on what it can do, but also on what it cannot.
There are natural limits to its powers. For instance, it cannot be expected to barge into people's homes or mediate disputes between neighbours. It is important that it sets public expectations early on the limits to its powers.
The MND has been tight-lipped so far on the details of the MSO, giving little away. It did not directly answer The Straits Times' queries on which direction it was leaning towards.
In any case, the public will know, in a little more than three weeks' time, how the MSO will serve them.
By then, it is vital that the office spell out its game plan clearly, otherwise the bang and buzz created at the National Day Rally can turn into a whimper.
This article was published on Sept 4 in The Straits Times.
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