Singapore’s Social Service Sector at the Crossroads: Plotting the Direction Ahead

Year: 2021


Singapore currently contends with the impact of evolving economic, social and demographic trends. Social patterns of an ageing population, slowing population growth and rising inequality, coupled with economic transformation trends of increased digitalisation and the need to maintain competitiveness – all of which have been affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – are reshaping the very ways in which businesses operate and how individuals go about their lives.

Such fundamental forces and their implications have not eluded Singapore’s social service sector and its users, who heed the call for change. As 2021 marks the conclusion of the National Council of Social Services’ (NCSS) latest strategic plan, this article surveys the current state of the sector and addresses some considerations at play as it charts its next course.

Gearing Up for a More Meaningful Impact

Under the Ministry of Social and Family Development, NCSS acts as the national coordinating body for over 450-member Social Service Agencies (SSAs) in Singapore. The NCSS provides leadership for the sector and supports SSAs in empowering seniors, children and youth, families, persons with disabilities and special needs, persons with mental health conditions, and those with rehabilitation and reintegration needs. Together, the sector employs more than 15,000 people ranging from Social Workers, Psychologists, Nurses, Therapists to Special Education Teachers, among others.

This year marks the conclusion of the Social Service Sector Strategic Thrusts (4ST) plan – launched in 2017 by the NCSS which was co-developed with the people, private and public (3P) sectors. That roadmap led the sector to seek solutions driven by the three key thrusts of:

Source: National Council of Social Service (NCSS)

Followed with initiatives such as the Beyond Covid-19 Taskforce and Tech-and-GO!, the 4ST endeavour demonstrably led to the meaningful creation of numerous other sector-wide plans. With the 4ST plan now coming to a close, the sector is understandably looking ahead to develop readiness for the future – in particular by preparing for a refresh of the 4ST plan through ongoing research, engagement and strategy development. A brief publication entitled The Road Ahead for the Social Service Sector has been released post the Social Service Summit in July 2021, containing the sector’s preliminary plans and aspirations for the future.

As the manifold social and economic challenges noted in the introduction evolve, vulnerable communities will continue to be affected by rising issues associated with social mobility and inclusivity, mental wellbeing, health and the environment. The Covid-19 pandemic has further brought social needs to the forefront, and helps elucidate the need for the sector to rethink and reimagine the ways in which it engages with and responds to the requirements of service users.

More and more, social service users demand services that are better personalised to their needs – services that are accessible, holistic and efficient – for which the sector will have to gear up to provide in order to drive more meaningful social impact. To facilitate this elevation in services, the social sector ecosystem will have to adapt hiring practices to attract relevant talent, and upskill the workforce to develop better tech, leadership and strategic planning capabilities.

Source: Published in 2021 by National Council of Social Service (NCSS)

With the above in mind, we have identified three key focus areas to help steer the direction ahead for Singapore’s social sector: People, Productivity and Partnership.

Source: Future-Moves Group

1. People

The social service industry is commonly perceived as offering employment that is less desirable when compared to other jobs in both public and private sectors. The emotionally and physically-taxing nature of the job, seemingly unattractive opportunities for career progression, and demand for niche skills all contribute to the enduring challenge of hiring and retaining staff. Coupled more broadly with a shifting local employment landscape of a tightening labour market, ageing workforce and decelerating growth of the resident labour force, the social sector is demonstrably vulnerable to the recruiting and manpower challenge.

The call for better human capital management and development is not new; indeed, the social service has in recent years taken great strides to promote growth of the service. Through efforts such as the establishment of new undergraduate and continuing education programmes, a Skills Framework as part of the Social Service Industry Manpower Plan, as well as mid-career professional conversion programmes, the sector has attempted to lay strong foundations for sustaining a future-ready workforce.

Information Provided in the Skills Framework for Social Service. Source: SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG)

Notwithstanding this significant progress, the social service needs to ensure continued professionalisation of the industry, manpower efficiency maximisation, and responsiveness to welfare needs of employees. Particularly, enhancing skills development and employee welfare are two objectives at the core of the future manpower trajectory of Singapore’s social service sector.

Skills Development

First, the existing agenda on developing the skills and capabilities of professionals within the sector needs to be expanded. The plethora of skills development initiatives led by NCSS, the Social Service Institute (SSI) and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), along with other key players, no doubt catalyse the sector’s human capital development.

Nonetheless, as social services gradually adapt to advanced ways of digital working and respond to the evolving needs of service users, upskilling programmes and recruitment schemes across both social work and corporate roles should be upgraded. Individual organisations can be better empowered to identify human capital shortfalls and turn toward players in the sector for best practice advice and support. For example, a pilot study by NCSS in 2019 found that organisations which hired volunteer managers saw marked increases in both the numbers of volunteers and volunteering hours, while SSI offers consultancy support in human resource and volunteer management.

Furthermore, building leadership capability and associated skills in business and crisis management is critical to ready the sector for future challenges. While leadership has been traditionally studied in-depth for the business sector, leadership and management principles in the social service sector necessitate better understanding – particularly in regard to sector specificities such as managing both employees and volunteers collectively or working with resource scarcity. The sector’s limited leadership-building programmes, such as the Sun Ray Scheme, require strengthening, if organisations are to be credibly helmed by motivational, forward-looking and effective leaders.

Benefits of the Sun Ray Scheme. Source: National Council of Social Service (NCSS)

Employee Welfare

Second, maintaining employee welfare and satisfaction are vital to safeguarding the social service workforce. Globally, social service workers commonly experience a multitude of challenges related to inadequate working conditions, poor renumeration, high caseloads, and limitations of- and overburdening of resources. As human resources are often scarce in the field, employees in the service face emotional and psychological stress, leading to impairment to their ability to appropriately help their service users.

For Singapore, the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a stark reminder of a stretched human capital resources situation in the social service field. A timely study on frontline social workers in the pandemic found a considerably high percentage of workers meeting the criteria for depression, anxiety and stress – more than half surveyed (56.5%) had mild to severe anxiety. These percentages were higher compared with other studies on non-frontline healthcare workers in Singapore during the same period.

In another example, it was found that counsellors in Singapore were vulnerable to distress and weakening emotional well-being in the face of high demand for their services during the pandemic (five firms surveyed cited spike in new cases by an average of 20% from pre-pandemic years). The encroachment of work stress onto personal boundaries, exacerbated by the emotional nature of the job, contributed to burnout for many local counsellors.

While the pandemic is certainly an extraordinary situation, it still highlights the potential for the social service sector to bolster employee resilience and ensure sufficient organisational and societal support is available for workers. Safeguarding employee welfare should take a multi-pronged approach, including by offering competitive salaries commensurate with the demands of the job, and incentivising organisations to promote work satisfaction and staff wellbeing.

The former should be enhanced through regular salary benchmark reviews, publication of sector salary guidelines by the government, and commitment by organisations to these guidelines. For the latter, organisational support in enabling employees to access needed resources for their work, and encouraging task significance and professional autonomy, are some tactics worth pursuing.

“Money should not be the reason why people join the sector, but it also should not be the reason why people do not join it.”

Fermin Diez, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the NCSS

It is imperative that the social sector is driven by a motivated and professional workforce, facilitated by effective human capital management, competitive compensation practices, organisational support and employee recognition efforts.

2. Productivity

Social service agencies and organisations are at a critical juncture for which both non-tech and tech innovation are increasingly required to encourage creative solutioning, digitalisation and ultimately, improve productivity.

In the NCSS’ Social Sector Survey 2018, leaders of social service agencies cited “innovation and collaboration” as among both the “lowest performing” and “highest desire to improve” areas within their organisations – agencies revealed that they lacked capability in leveraging technology and fostering an innovative culture. Especially when faced with the multi-pronged challenges of manpower shortage, increasingly complex social issues and resource constraints, maintaining relevancy and quality of services are pertinent for the future of social service agencies.

Scatterplot of Performance Against Desire to Improve, NCSS Social Sector Survey 2018. Source: National Council of Social Service (NCSS)

In this respect, the social sector is equipped with forward-looking initiatives, notably the Industry Digital Plan for Social Services launched in 2021, and innovation and productivity projects such as the Sector Design Challenge (SDC). These plans and programmes comprehensively chart the path for digitalisation and innovation, to improve infrastructure and organisational effectiveness throughout the sector.

As numerous plans are acted upon, the need to maintain a core culture of innovation driven from within will be vital for social service agencies. To this end, organisations have to be led by future-ready leaders who encourage bottom-up innovation, look to better understanding stakeholders’ needs and seek win-win partnerships for performance enhancement opportunities.

Future-Ready Leadership and Bottom-Up Innovation

First, the vital role of senior management in social service innovation – through supporting funds and resources for innovation projects, aiding employees with problem solving and creating cooperation among various job functions – is key to cultivating an open culture to operational and tech innovation.

In a high-touch sector for which workers at all levels form direct relationships with service users, organisations’ employees are rightly poised with deep understanding of beneficiaries to devise and tailor innovative solutions. An organisational culture that is led by upper management that fosters a conducive environment of encouraging self-driven initiatives, creative thinking and psychological safety can better enhance agencies’ innovative capacity.

Stakeholder Networks

Second, for organisations to widen their productive and innovative ability, it is necessary to build reciprocal relationships with multiple stakeholders. Literature in this area finds that social organisations that focus on the needs of multiple stakeholders (i.e. beneficiaries, donors, employees, partners, competitors, government) engender improved social mission orientation, economic sustainability and organisational performance improvement.

Focusing on stakeholder orientation and engagement, on top of prioritising the understandably most important group of service users, can help organisations to better satisfy target audiences, attract more resources, improve problem-solving capacities and thus increase service delivery efficiency.

Stakeholders in the Social Service Sector. Source: SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG)

To better provide tailored, accessible and affordable services to service users, social sector organisations will benefit from openness to innovation and proactively finding means to improve service delivery – this which is responsive to the holistic demands and strengths of all vested stakeholders.

3. Partnership

As social challenges evolve and are increasingly impacted by economic, demographic and cultural changes, the social service ecosystem will have to adapt in parallel to respond to multifaceted issues. While the traditionally dominant role of the government is vital to driving the sector’s growth, this should not restrict the development of deeper intra-industry linkages and leadership to drive industry-level partnerships. In the niche social sphere, collaboration is a mighty force for exchange of expertise, ideas and resources in tackling joint challenges.

As the key funder, oversight body and collaborator in the sector, the government risks taking on too many roles and over-centralising processes and channels in the social space. Inadvertently, this can breed dependency of key players in the system on the government – social service organisations, corporate partners and communities might be disincentivised from independently establishing within-sector partnerships and co-creating to tackle shared challenges.

Cross-sector collaboration – defined as “the linking or sharing of information, resources, activities and capabilities by organisations in two or more sectors to jointly achieve an outcome that could not be achieved by organisations in one sector separately” – is a necessary strategy to tackle society’s most pressing public challenges. Extant literature in this sphere generally concurs on reasons for which social partnerships should be pursued – cross-sector and meaningful alliances allow for organisations to gain scarce resources, improve management competence, and exchanging of knowledge and skills. These three central objectives of cross-sectoral social partnerships provide meaningful insight and goals for the local social sector.

Gain Scarce Resources

First, more can be done to stimulate social organisations to seek the scarce resource of funding from a wider range of partners and channels. As an example, a research study on Singapore’s disability sector found that while strong structures exist for organisations to obtain government funding, organisations (and especially less established or smaller ones) largely need to rely on additional revenue sources, public donors and corporate sponsorships to fill funding gaps. Found to be the top challenge faced by social service agencies, difficulties in fundraising tangibly affect organisations’ ability to seamlessly execute initiatives, build capacity and secure manpower resources.

Improve Management Competence

Second, meaningful partnerships and deep working relationships need to be pursued as alternative channels for organisations to develop management skills and business acumen. Engagement with partners has been found to enable social organisations to enhance understanding of the issues that they are tackling, improve business and operational practices, and develop better joint and individual strategies.

Exchange of Knowledge and Skills

Lastly, cross-sectoral exchange of knowledge will be helpful to bolster the skills and expertise within the sector. Knowledge sharing and active network activities in the social sector have been found to help agencies improve service quality and produce better evidence-based practice. Collaborative sharing can facilitate exchange of explicit knowledge (i.e. process, routines, formulas) and tacit knowledge (i.e. sharing experiences and know-how) – allowing organisations to better accomplish shared goals.

It is worth noting that current partnerships in the social service ecosystem extend across a variety of areas and objectives, for which such linkages can be further expanded upon. These include but are not limited to the partnerships as illustrated in the figure below.

Source: Future-Moves Group

Within the sector, interdependent networks of knowledge and resource-sharing, training and service delivery that engage a spectrum of players across the public, corporate and community space will be crucial to addressing interconnected challenges while generating greater social impact. The above demonstrate how collaboration can be a force for social service agencies to boost resource and funding resources, organisational management and practical knowledge sharing activities.

“It is timely for our next generation leaders to gather, identify and examine problems grappling the social service sector today, draw out collective learnings and together plan for the future beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Desmond Lee, Minister for National Development and Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration


Evidently, the social service sector in Singapore has much to contend with amid profound ongoing social and economic changes. While it is heartening that the sector has done much already to identify the challenges it faces and mooted measures for tackling them, it is clear that there is much work ahead. Particularly, a lot more can be achieved with collaborative thinking and creative reimagination of existing processes and endeavours. As NCSS and the social sector strategise their next steps ahead, focusing on the fundamentals of the 3 P’s – People, Productivity and Partnership – will be a good place to start.

Rachel Phang is an Associate Consultant at Future-Moves Group. A graduate of the National University of Singapore with a degree in Political Science, Rachel contributes towards FMG’s thought leadership output on social and political issues.

Headquartered in Singapore, Future-Moves Group is a premier strategy and management consulting firm, with a focus in public policy. Please contact us to find out how we can help you or your organisation with our suite of consulting, advisory and training services.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Future-Moves Group.