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A smoother ride

A smoother ride

How Singapore's Land Transport Authority reduced its dependence on physical documentation and streamlined its internal processes.

Singapore's Land Transport Authority has embarked on a project that has reduced its dependence on physical documentation and streamlined its internal processes. Even by the standards of chronically overburdened government departments, Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) has a serious workload. Formed more than 10 years ago from the ashes of four separate agencies overseeing everything from private vehicles to mass transit and road works, the authority acts as an all-purpose shop for any projects or queries concerning the city-state's transportation infrastructure.

In line with the rapid development of rail and road links, its staff has more than tripled over the last decade, yet the LTA still struggles with the sheer volume of requests it's forced to cope with daily. A few figures paint an intimidating picture. Its officers handle more than 40,000 phone calls from the public, evaluate 200,000 pages of building plans, and manage contracts totalling 1.5 million pages and worth billions of dollars each month.

Five years ago, an agency-wide IT consolidation initiative gave the LTA's Innovation and Infocomm Technology Group the opportunity to launch a project that would refine, digitise and automate many of the authority's paper-based processes, reaping efficiency and customer satisfaction gains that convinced MIS Asia's panel of expert judges to bestow it an IT Excellence Award for Best Business Enabler (Government) last year.

Search for the best

Like many successful transformations, the LTA's one stop retrieval and infobank interchange (ORBIT) project started relatively small. The agency wanted a "best-of-breed" document and workflow management system that could meet a lengthy list of requirements-support for open interface standards, an ability to capture and process an already high and expanding number of forms, and the power to streamline complex workflows among them.

After a lengthy evaluation exercise, the authority settled on a suite of products from FileNET, an enterprise content management specialist under the IBM umbrella. A project team made up of representatives from IT and other departments then decided to start with a pilot application that would test the solution's technical prowess and, if successful, serve as evidence that similar changes could be brought to other corners of the organisation. The first function targeted was the LTA's public feedback management service, which the team believed would see quick benefits from the solution's workflow automation and rapid document capture, search and retrieval capabilities.

The public feedback management implementation served as a base for the solution's extension to the rest of the enterprise. The project team expanded its processing and storage capacity and established standard document and archival management services that could be used to control all the paperwork received and processed by the LTA throughout its lifecycle, from capture to eventual disposal.

The goal was to help staff move documentation through clearly defined stages to a centralised, secure information repository that was accessible anywhere and anytime. Convenience was enhanced through the introduction of unified access control and authentication features, as well as efforts to link the workflow management solution with corporate email and HR systems.

The core solution was also tweaked for some specific, and tricky, agency functions. Executives developed a cost control and contract management system that integrates the contract approval and oversight duties handled by various departments to ensure costs are kept down throughout the lifetime of an agreement. The authority also moved to ease bureaucracy for external users by allowing them to file building plans for approval electronically.

Giving users a say

The ORBIT project brought profound changes to the administration of the LTA's services, making some confusion and even resistance among the agency's staff virtually inevitable. Rosina Howe, the authority's group director of innovation and infocomm technology, says the project team attempted to address this by appointing model users from different units that were given a clear stake in how the new system was implemented and developed in their own departments.

"Among the users, we identified the most enthusiastic and forward-looking of all as the user champion, and appointed that person the 'system owner'," Howe explains. "The role of system owner requires the leader to steer the task force and define the scope and timeframe of the project, in consultation with IT."

With a direct channel to management and a licence to "think out of the box" in working with IT to tailor solutions for different functions or roles, these champions "play a key role in influencing fellow users", she says.

And Howe notes the LTA also ensured model users were appropriately awarded.

"While [the LTA] acknowledges the importance of teamwork, it also acknowledges the significance of the system owner as the driver of change," she says. "The achievements of the project were largely attributed to the system owners their technical partners from IT during formal annual performance appraisals."

As more and more individual systems were built on top of the ORBIT infrastructure, the LTA found it needed to rope more vendors into the project, including different system integrators such as Singapore's NCS and India's Satyam Computer Services. Juggling multiple providers can be an arduous task, but Howe says the agency had good reasons not to sign on with a single partner.

"Due to the complexity of our operations and the scale of the implementation, it would have taken a longer time to implement the entire system through one vendor," she says. "Workflow management was also highly experimental. Instead of spending too much time deliberating on its scope, we decided to focus on the formulation of interoperability standards and the enterprise software architecture. With this framework, there was no concern whether one or more vendors were involved."

According to Howe, the classification of documentation is one of the most delicate parts of a document management initiative as it has a direct bearing on how easy users will find it to store and retrieve data. The LTA devoted substantial resources to the development of a "taxonomy framework" that uses categorisation, terms and keywords to organise its massive pool of official documentation. The agency sought assistance from outside experts such as the National Archives of Singapore as well as its own users to devise a "precise yet practical approach" to information classification that employed keywords and categories applicable to the everyday business context.

"Input was also sought from subject matter experts from various disciplines within the organisation, such as administrative service, engineering, policy, contracts and IT," Howe explains.

As a public agency, the LTA could be forgiven for not being as cost-focused as its profit-driven counterparts. But even the most budget-conscious enterprise would be pleased with the financial returns produced by the ORBIT initiative.

Corporate documents used to be indexed, photocopied and frequently couriered among the authority's various offices, but are now captured just once and can be accessed or edited through any authorised desktops in the organisation. This has generated document handling cost savings of around US$1 million per year, and has also enabled the LTA to trim manpower by about 5 per cent. Staff previously shackled with mundane duties like form reproduction and retrieval can be dispatched to new and more fulfilling areas. And with ORBIT now comfortably filling the role of the clerks that used to route, search and retrieve business information, the authority has also seen the cycle time for most processes cut by some 30 per cent.

The system has also revolutionised customer service by creating a central database that houses frequently asked questions, responses and client case histories for staff to reference when addressing public inquiries. This repository now boasts "layers upon layers of expert knowledge" and serves as a valuable training mechanism for client-facing officers. The LTA has revised some electronic forms based on customer input to slash the time they take to complete and submit to just minutes.

But few are better poised to judge the efficacy of a solution than those who use it every day, and ORBIT also appears to have been warmly received on that front. To gauge the success of the project internally, the LTA has run a series of post-implementation user surveys for each of the individual systems under the ORBIT umbrella. These supplement an IT "customer satisfaction survey" for all end-users in the agency that is conducted annually "to gather feedback and recommendations," says Howe.

In all these polls "users provided excellent feedback and credited ORBIT for work improvements, as well as responsiveness towards constraints encountered by service departments on site," says Howe.

MIS

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