How Singapore transforms its employment services: Our interview with Hefen Wong from the Ministry of Manpower

Hefen Wong

In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is increasingly implementing design thinking, behavioural insights and data analytics to improve its employment services. Hefen Wong is the deputy director of MOM's innovation unit "Co-Lab". In our interview, she explains how the MOM combines these approaches in its practical work, what they are good for and what difference they can make for job seekers.


Hefen, at the last International Design in Government Conference in London, you gave an inspiring keynote address about the importance of a well-designed office for employment. We would like to share your insights with our community in Switzerland. As Deputy Director of the Co-Lab within the MOM in Singapore, could you tell us a bit more about your institution and your work?

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) seeks to build a great workforce and a great workplace for Singapore. Co-Lab is an in-house innovation team. We sit in the Corporate Planning and Management Department of the ministry and support the work of the policy and operations divisions within the MOM. Co-Lab’s mission is to foster human-centred policies and data-driven decisions. We use a combination of design thinking, behavioural insights and data analytics to solve problems for the ministry and to improve service delivery.

So is your primary focus on policy design rather than service design?

Actually we do more service design, but also cover enforcement and regulation. An example of a current service design project we are working on is to reimagine what dispute management could look like in the future. Today, when a relationship between an employer and employee has broken down, they go to a mediator to resolve the conflict, because most of the time they are no longer speaking to each other. In place of meeting a mediator in-person, we are exploring digital ways where people can exchange information with each other and resolve conflicts more easily. This is just one example of how we are using design thinking and behavioural insights to enhance service delivery.

How did you come up with the idea that you need both design thinking and behavioural insights, rather than focusing purely on one or the other?

I think it’s more historical than deliberate. The MOM started using design thinking nine years ago and behavioural insights six years ago. When we started using behavioural insights, we saw that the methods were very complementary. In my view, design thinking takes a more divergent and holistic approach to solving problems. The way behavioural insights has been positioned is that a small change – in your choice architecture, in your decision environment – can have a big impact. We like to combine these tools to effectively tackle a range of different problems. We use design thinking to do user research and prototyping; and we include behavioral interventions within a broader solution. When building a service, we always ask what is the behaviour we want users to adopt.

Do you also use these insights in job seeking?

Yes, we did a project on job seeking a few years ago. We were running a randomised control trial and tested a series of interventions. When job seekers went to the job centre, they had to commit to seeing their career consultant at least five times. If they found a job anytime during the five sessions, they would receive SGD $100 (about CHF 72) in supermarket vouchers. They would also receive SGD $100 when they finished the five sessions, even if they didn’t find a job. Career consultants also asked job seekers to write down their specific goals and actions, for example committing to apply for three jobs within the next two weeks. With these combined interventions, the trial was very impactful; people committed to their job search and the job placement rate increased from 32% in the control group to 49% in the intervention group. This would result in 4,500 more successful job placements within 3 months of visiting a job centre.

We also did user research with job seekers, employers and HR professionals, which was used in the development of "MyCareersFuture” job search portal. The portal uses machine learning and text analysis to identify key skills from job ads and displays the percentage score of the skills match between a job seeker and a job, to guide job seekers’ training efforts. It also shows job seekers adjacent jobs that require similar skills that they may have not considered.

Job seekers can also use filters to search for employers participating in government support programmes, such as those that support job seekers without relevant experience, e.g. Professional Conversion Programmes, Career Trial, etc. We also have programmes subsidising training costs, to enable individuals to stay relevant.

What impact are new technologies having on the way people look for work and how do you see this developing in the future?

I was recently interviewing candidates for a job. We kept asking one candidate if he really wanted the job, if he was passionate about the role. He hesitated in his responses, so we asked what other jobs he had applied for, but he couldn’t answer that either. The reason for his vague responses was that he had written the code to build a bot that searched career websites for him based on certain keywords. He glanced through what the bot found for him and then simply applied. He applied for so many jobs that he couldn’t really remember what he had applied for. This is an excellent illustration of a new way of conducting a job search and illustrates how machines change the way we search for things.

In Switzerland, people who have been out of the workforce for a long time, such as women returning after bringing up children or people who have lost a job in their fifties, often have great difficulty finding a new position. Is this also an issue in Singapore and, if so, how do you address it?

In 2017, the National Trades Union Congress partnered Workforce Singapore to launch the Returner Work Trial. People who have been out of work for two years or longer can join the six-month programme with on-the-job training, training allowance and ease back into employment. This also means an employer can “try out” the employee first to see if they are a good match. The Government also incentivises companies by providing an additional retention bonus of SGD $3,000 (about 2,170 CHF) to companies that employ and retain the returners.

Generally, I feel that as governments are going through transformation and are using new tools, there is a growing emphasis on deploying people to new jobs. Increasingly, there will be work to be done in terms of redesigning jobs and increasing the resilience of people to workplace change. Here, people working within public service will have to be supported to build new skills and go for new challenges. When you give people a hand in designing the future of their own work process, it gives them more agency to change and rewrite their job scope when their old jobs are disrupted.

Is the MOM particularly forward thinking or does the whole of government in Singapore embrace design and behavioural insights? How do you compare with other government agencies?

The use of design thinking and behavioural insights is definitely increasing in the Singapore government. MOM started using design thinking in 2009, and we have more experience using an established approach to analyse and redesign our work processes from users’ perspectives. Nonetheless, Singapore’s early public policies ranging from traffic congestion to retirement savings have incorporated insights from psychology even before the emerging field of behavioural economics became popular, as shared in the book “Behavioural Economics and Policy Design: Examples from Singapore”, edited by Donald Low. Over time, the Singapore government is getting more savvy with creating human-centred policies, with more established tools and frameworks.

Do you think that human resources is a good place to start with building more citizen-centred services?

Actually I feel the specific topic is not that important. To me it’s more a question of whether the management of the organisation is aware of the tools and ready to use them. The moment the management is ready, and you form a team that has a more open-minded, entrepreneurial, pro-active approach to change, you can start. I don’t necessarily think that issues relating to human resources or labour are more ripe for change than other areas. When you look at public services, there are countless impactful problems to be solved – within any area.


Hefen Wong leads the multi-disciplinary Co-Lab in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which sets out to humanise public services through service design and to drive evidence-based policy-making. Before joining Co-Lab, Hefen held fellow positions at New York’s Public Policy Lab and UK’s Behavioral Insights Team.

(Photo: MOM)