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Coordinating The Hands In “Many Helping Hands”

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin (Screenshot: "Lian He Zao Bao").

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin (Screenshot: “Lian He Zao Bao”).

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin – who also leads the national volunteerism movement SG Cares – when asked about potential issues when different community groups or non-profit organisations offer assistance, programmes, or services, in an interview with “Lian He Zao Bao, raised the challenge of coordination. Relating to his experience as MP of Kembangan-Chai Chee, he said:

“You have the church, the mosque, you have the clan association, you have some VWOs [voluntary welfare organisations], you have the senior activity centre [(SAC)], and they are doing various things. And some of them actually overlap, but you also find that sometimes they are not really coordinating with each other. So you find that overlaps happen. So that started early on [in] the journey: Why don’t we coordinate better? How do we piece the picture together?” (emphasis mine).

Mr. Tan added:

“The FSC [family service centre] might know certain details, the local kindergarten might know some details about some families. But how do you begin to collaborate? And a lot of these, you can’t mandate specifically, but I think pulling the community together, sit down, create sub-groups, and when they begin to know each other, you realise that information begins to flow, and actually you see the collaboration, [it is] quite magical … So we are exploring what’s the best way to do it. My own sense as an MP on the ground, I initiate the coordination, work with the partners, and frankly it’s as simple as that. It might sound simple, but it takes a while, for people to build up trust, relationships. But I’ve seen it work. Now it’s how do we encourage more of this to happen” (emphasis mine).

This challenge of coordination is even more critical, when framed from the perspectives of the beneficiaries. A social worker once shared in an interview the methodical process of sourcing and delivering assistance – beyond financial aid – for an elderly Singaporean living alone: Making sure he has three hot meals a day, that he complies with medical appointments and takes prescribed medication, that he has some companionship, and that his recreational and psycho-social needs are taken care of. And within each neighbourhood these needs are oftentimes attended to by organisations whose missions, as Mr. Tan alluded to, can overlap. Soup kitchens or religious organisations deliver hot meals and groceries. Social workers from the FSC or volunteer befrienders could accompany the elderly man to the polyclinic or hospital for check-ups. While companionship and recreational activities could be provided by befrienders, the SACs, or even grassroots events.


If so, two (policy) questions emerge: Who should coordinate? And how should community groups or organisations coordinate?

The short-term answer to the first question is a little more straightforward, since the social welfare and services sector in Singapore remains anchored by the “Many Helping Hands” approach, through which assistance – and as an extension, the coordination of the assistance – is provided by the government through the aforementioned groups and organisations. Financially, in terms of the total receipts of the charity sector reported by the Commissioner of Charities, in 2015 government grants of $6.94 billion was 47.5 per cent of the $14.6 billion total (donations was 17.3 per cent of the total, while other sources such as income for programmes and services was 35.1 per cent of the toal). The parliamentary dominance of the ruling party, with all but six of 89 elected seats, also makes it convenient for parliamentarians like Mr. Tan to take a lead on coordination in their respective constituencies.

In the long-term, however, what is likely to be more sustainable – and perhaps, even more beneficial – is for stakeholders to co-own this coordination process. Organisations coordinate and lead organisations, in other words. This distinction may seem banal to some, and the departure from the government and its MPs may unsettle those who prefer the status quo, yet the motivation is for community groups and organisations to move from a passive to a more proactive approach, to pilot intervention projects so as to deepen their expertise, and to ultimately see collaboration as integral to their work. With the development of more regular meetings and useful communication channels, rotational leadership or partnerships could further enrich the flow of ideas.

The government and its MPs could provide the initial nudge, but they must know when to move into a more supporting role.

A “Smart Nation” for a smart social welfare and services sector (and vice versa)

Identifying operational overlaps would be an immediate benefit of this organisations-lead-organisations approach, though community groups and organisations would also benefit from a more holistic need- or beneficiary-centric approach. “What can our organisation do, for this person or family?” therefore becomes “What can we do, for this person or family?”. This is the “how” of coordination. Organisations can grow attached to their programmes or services that they have been running for a long time (especially those they may have piloted), yet unless there are evaluative studies of these programmes or services, or longitudinal research of the individuals they serve, the organisations cannot be certain of the intervention outcomes or the impact on beneficiaries. A more rigorous approach, in this vein, must start with the needs of those in need, and how they might be effectively met.

Amid the discourse about the Smart Nation initiative, data and technology – in this realm of social policy – can render the process of needs analysis more accurate and efficient. Recall the earlier example about the elderly Singaporean living alone. What does he need most at the moment? As he ages, and with his financials, what other needs are likely to feature? What are the circumstances like, for other elderly men like him? By pulling and aggregating the information from various organisations (for the elderly, for disadvantaged families, for those with special needs), furthermore, these organisations should know the extent to which beneficiaries are receiving assistance or aid from government agencies, VWOs, or other charitable bodies.

And progressively, this practice of collecting and using data will allow the organisations to properly measure and manage their performance, and that of their programmes and services. “What gets measured gets managed” is a refrain which applies to coordination too. If the desire is to minimise overlap, to “coordinate better”, to “piece the picture together”, and to “encourage more [collaboration] to happen”, then making those advances – and enabled by technological advancement – in the who and the how of coordination must take centre-stage.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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