Fine and reward bus operators – too much privatisation in a public service

The latest announcement by the Land Transport Authority to penalise and reward public transport operators (PTOs) based on the frequency of delays in buses might have raised a few eyebrows. If not, it really should.

Indeed, those who have read the comments in the first report by TODAY would have noted the negative reactions among readers. Clearly, this has not gone down well with the average Singaporean.

It is interesting to note that the second report on the issue, by the same author, carried a very different headline – see image above. Perhaps there was a realisation, even by TODAY, of what this penalty-reward scheme really is about?

For a start, the basic maths of the entire scheme would have puzzled, if not antagonised, many. Let’s assume that a PTO had twenty incidences where the estimated waiting time was exceeded by six seconds, and another twenty incidences where buses arrived earlier by the same. This would have resulted in a $80,000 fine for the first ten, and a $120,000 for the next ten. The net gain would have been $40,000.

In effect, all the scheme really does is incentivise a higher frequency of such an exchange, for pretty much no net improvement in service. This merely results in inconvenience to commuters, who need consistency in their daily commute, not a net result based on highs and lows.

Other readers have raised more issues, such as poor safety due to unnecessary stress on bus drivers to perform, transparency about the baseline frequency, who sets the standards, who monitors poor performance, risk of public funds being used for the unjustified rewards, passing of penalty costs to commuters… TOC has summarised these earlier, so I would not go into them. Instead, I wish to focus on the reasoning and intent behind such a scheme.

Indeed, the Transport Minister himself has said in Parliament that minor disruptions are unavoidable, and where “major disruptions are described as those that last more than 30 minutes”. So why is his Ministry making news of a scheme that is intent on penalising the minor delays in the day to day running of bus services, when attention should be focused on preventing major delays?

Is the Ministry of Transport running out of good news stories to announce? I would hope not.

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But that also means to say that such a scheme is little more than an extension and perversion of the “meritocratic” Singapore system that we know so well. There is a penalty for poor performance and a reward for good performance. Taken to its extreme, such a system focuses on the net gain of a product or service that is to be evaluated, based purely on the end result it delivers.

It conveniently ignores the processes and standards that need to be put in place to ensure that service delivery, while falling short at times, is generally on the path of reliability at worst, and consistent improvement at best. That should have been the mid- to long-term approach that Singapore has been credited with.

What we see here is, unfortunately, a poorly propagated perception that “we are doing something radical and significant about public transport delays”, but in essence is really relegating the problem to a simple cost-profit model that focuses on net performance.

Such an approach was precisely what plagued our public transport system leading up to the breakdowns in December 2011. It is nothing short of appalling that they should be resurrected again this week.

Singaporeans are not concerned about minor delays. They are worried that the billions of tax payers’ money that has been pumped into a supposedly world-class transport system has gone down the drain due to profiteering, driven by the greed of the private sector in managing what must fundamentally be a public service.

Attention is much needed in other regular service and maintenance issues, which to their credit the Ministry of Transport and PTOs have taken steps to alleviate. These include the upgrading of train tracks, opening of new train lines and bus routes, upgrading of IT infrastructure, and above all, a willingness to learn from others.

But to relegate all this good work to a penalty-reward system is to take two steps back in the management of our public transport system.

If a “low-tolerance for poor service” message is the intention of our transport regulator, then evidently the solution lies elsewhere. The freezing of fare increases or fare reduction until a sustained track record of good service is attained would be one such solution. Not only does it prevent the passing of costs to commuters, but also ensures that PTOs favour long-term service provision over short-term gains.

A move towards nationalising the public transport service will be another, where PTOs stand to lose entire service frameworks if service dips below standards set by the regulator. It would have demanded consistency in service and a focus on continual improvement.

Instead, such a penalty-reward scheme would not have made any sense in an organisation intent on performance management. It is nothing more than a simple acceptance of poor service as an end-point of the service delivery chain.

From here, we once again risk pulling the covers over a public transport system that has been exposed to be rotten much higher up the hierarchy, where excessive profits, short cuts and cost saving ruled over public service.

For sure, unless we are comfortable with receiving net performance for net happiness, we do not want to go back there again.

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