Proposing a New Guard Duty System
Guard duty — one of the most time-wasting and rage-inducing duties which Singapore full-time national servicemen (NSFs) are obliged to carry out, especially in the Commandos formation, which pretty much does more duties than every other formation in the army. Guard duty has always been a source of friction inside most units, an outcome of forcing people to do what they are unwilling to do, often at the expense of their precious weekends. The guard duty system, designed by and unique to different companies in the unit, aims to create a system in which guard duties are allocated fairly and transparently to everyone in the company.
In most companies, a guard duty point system is implemented, awarding points to each duty being done, and allocating duties to those with less points. However, this system is fraught with problems, which cannot be easily rectified even with modifications to the system. I propose an entirely new system, one which eliminates the problems the old system has, and is all around more fair and transparent.
Problems with the Point System
Before introducing the current guard duty point system, it is important to reexamine the importance of a guard duty system, and what it should aim to achieve. Guard duties fall on many different days, and it is somewhat fair to assume that someone will have to fill up the guard duty role on every day of the year. That implies that there are different days which people will have to do guard duty for. Firstly, there are the weekdays, as opposed to the weekends, where you have to do 14 hours of duty on each weekday (Monday to Friday), as compared to 24 hours of duty on the weekends (Saturday and Sunday). Bookout timings are also considered, as for Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, you will have to spend different amounts of bookout time (time which you would be out of camp) doing guard duty in camp, as opposed to Mondays to Thursdays, where you would be in camp regardless. Hence, Saturday duties would be considered the most ‘painful’, as you would have to spend 24hrs of bookout time to do duty, followed by Sundays, Fridays and then the other weekdays. Other than these typical days during the week, there are also unique dates like public holidays (Christmas, Chinese New Years, Deepavali etc.), days where the company takes leave or have ‘off’ days, and the list goes on.
Since there really is an endless variety of dates to do guard duty, the guard duty system cannot be one in which each person must do the same number of dates, because the amount of ‘pain’ received from each guard duty on different dates varies. As such, an effective guard duty point system must be able to compensate the amount of ‘pain’ a person feels for doing the duty, giving that person a numerical value worth of points which is proportionate to that ‘pain’. To avoid using the subjective word ‘pain’ any more, it will, from here on, be termed ‘perceived value’ for each guard duty.
From personal experience, historically, every day in the week has been placed under the same point system, giving each duty a numerical value based on the company consensus. For example, this is a point system which was implemented in the past (to the best of my memory):
Monday — Thursday: 0.5 pts
Friday: 1 pt
Saturday, Sunday: 2pts
However, there were many people disagreeing with the system, advocating for change. The general idea was that people could exploit the Monday to Thursday duties in order to accumulate points and avoid getting any duties during the weekends, or Friday, which safeguards their treasured bookout time. On a similar note, many also felt that Saturday had a greater perceived value as compared to Sunday, as Saturday duties expend 24hrs of bookout time, as compared to Sunday duties’ 14hrs (the last 10hrs are done when everyone has booked in on Sunday night, hence they would have been in camp anyways). Hence, here are the adjusted changes to the guard duty ‘point’ system:
WEEKDAY POINT SYSTEM
WEEKEND POINT SYSTEM
Now, Monday to Thursday duties have a separate point system, which eliminates the first problem, while Saturdays and Sundays now have distinct numerical values allocated to each date, which addresses the latter concern. However, despite the change being an improvement of the former system, it still ignores the overarching problem of the point system.
The issue with any point system is that it estimates the perceived value of each guard duty date. For instance, the above system suggests that a Saturday duty has 3 times the perceived value of a Friday duty, when it most definitely is not. The perceived value could be 2.5 times, 2.9 times or 3.2 times that of Friday’s, and in all of these cases, someone would have felt cheated, or they would feel like they have exploited the system, which would lead to someone else feeling cheated. Furthermore, what about public holidays, or other unique dates like Valentine’s day, which is not a public holiday but will increase the perceived value of a weekend if it happens to fall on the day? Would a Valentine’s Friday still have a numerical point value of 1, when the perceived value is a lot higher due to the high opportunity cost of not being able to spend the romantic occasion with our loved ones? If not, what is the new value?
The primary reason why a guard duty point system doesn’t work is because different people have different perceived values for the different guard duty dates. If you use a blanket point system to only cover the 7 days of the week, the system would not efficiently allocate duties, resulting in a reduction of overall happiness and satisfaction in the company. Think of it this way: If there are only 2 people in the company, person X and person Y, doing guard duties for only Saturday and Sunday. X prefers doing duty on Saturdays (due to having a lower perceived value of Saturdays), while Y prefers Sundays. If you allocate the same number of Saturdays and Sundays for each person (they alternate duty days), the system would be fair, but not efficient. Knowing the preferences and perceived values of each person in the company would allow an efficient system to allocate all the Saturday duties to X, and all Sundays to Y. That way, everyone benefits and is better off. In reality, there are a lot more than 2 people doing guard duty in a company, and a lot more days, but the idea of efficient allocation remains. In fact, this principle can be seen in economics, in particular the free market and government intervention. In many ways, these two circumstances are very similar. The guard duty point system resembles a market which is heavily government-controlled, which is extremely inefficient and unreliable on certain occasions, while a more desired system should resemble one of an efficient free market, with minimal government intervention.
Another problem with the point system is that someone is allocating the guard duties. The points in the system only give a guideline to suggest who to put in for the week’s duties based on lowest points, but ultimately someone makes the final decision of who each day’s duty is allocated to. Having a puppet master behind the scenes naturally reduces the trust people put in the system. Especially since these puppet masters, known as the ‘guard duty planners’, are the ones doing guard duties as well, one has every right to question the transparency and legitimacy of the system. Although there might not be evil intention behind the planners’ decisions, people are always prone to bias, consciously or otherwise.
So, is there a system which gets rid of that human factor, and at the same time improves the efficiency of allocation to maximise company welfare, by allocating guard duties to those with the lowest perceived value for that date, but at the same time keeping it fair and transparent to all? I believe that my proposed system does all that.
The Proposed Guard Duty System
Notice that the new system no longer includes the word point, because we will be getting rid of it entirely! Rather, we will use a system which imitates closed-bidding, such as the one utilised for the allocation of Certificate of Entitlements (COE), but instead of bidding for the right to own a vehicle in Singapore, you will be bidding to NOT do guard duty on particular dates! Let’s take a look at how my proposed system works.
Firstly, it is important to note that the guard duty dates delegated to the company for the week is released at the start of every week. For simplicity, let’s just say it is on Sunday night, after everybody books in for the week. For example, for this week, the company has to cover Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which is known by everyone (each day, (X) number of people are required to do guard duty). Also, at the time when the week’s guard duty schedule is released to everyone, a particular number of guard duty credits will be given to everybody in the company to perform their bidding with. This is an arbitrary system I came up with, but let’s say the amount of credits given to everybody is calculated with:
Weekdays (Monday to Thursday): 30 credits each
Friday: 100 credits
Saturday: 250 credits
Sunday: 180 credits
So, for this week, each person will receive (2 X 30 + 100 +250 +180) = 590 credits to bid. On Sunday, each person is mandated to place credits on each guard duty date. However, the person does not have to spend all their credits. Then, once the bidding phase stops (say, Sunday 2359), guard duties will be immediately allocated to people based on how many credits they put on that day. For each day, the (X) number of people who put the least number of credits for that day will do that duty, and have their credits placed on that day refunded into their account.
For example, John allocated his credits as such:
Monday: 20 credits
Wednesday: 10 credits
Friday: 50 credits
Saturday: 300 credits
Sunday: 200 credits
Left over credits: 40 credits
However, since he is in the bottom (X) bidders for Wednesday and Friday, he has to do duty on Wednesday and Friday, but refunds his credits which he placed on both days, resulting in him having (40 + 10 + 50) = 100 credits remaining, which carries on to the next week and beyond.
Dealing with Outliers
Outliers, those who are unfit for duty, either for long term or out of a sudden, are problematic individuals who plague the guard duty individuals. From the guard duty system’s perspective, they add a layer of complexity to the guard duty roster, and is commonly a source of anger and resentment. Hence, a good guard duty system must be able to deal with this issue effictively.
There are effectively two types of outliers: those unfit for duty for a short duration (those who are sick, or those which have short-term injuries), and those unfit for duty for extended periods of time (long-term injuries).
The current guard duty point system punishes individuals who are unfit for duty, as they will have to catch up in points after they recover from their injuries or illnesses. On one hand, this makes it fair for the rest of the company, who has to do duties while they 'rest’, but on the other hand, this feels unfair for those who have legitimate injuries, who in turn might not want to return to doing duties, which then harms the guard duty personnel in the long run. There are plus and minuses to this system, and whether there is a net benefit or loss is unclear.
Comparatively, in the bidding system I propose, for long-term injuries of more than a week long, the affected individuals do not have to do more duties after they recover. The idea is that the points to bid for duties are only given to those who are available to do the duties for that week, which fluctuates based on how many goes on other courses, are sick or are injured. This system, despite seemingly encouraging individuals to see the doctor and get the status of being unfit for duty in order to get a break from guard duty, does not punish those who are legitimately unable to perform guard duty. Time will tell if this trade-off is worthwhile.
However, those who are unfit for duty for the short-term, which is less than a week long, will have the opportunity to serve guard duty for the rest of the week. They will be given points based on the days which they are available for guard duty, and will bid accordingly.
How does the Bidding System Compare to the Point System?
My proposed bidding system is nowhere perfect, and yet I feel that it possesses fundamental principles which addresses the problems of the point system and is overall a vast improvement. Let’s take a look at some of the comparative benefits and drawbacks of the bidding system.
- Efficient Distribution of Duty. With the new bidding system, one can essentially choose which duty day you do not want to be put for. For example, if you already made plans for this week’s Saturday with your girlfriend because it happens to be Valentine’s Day, you could put all your points for that week on that day, or even stack it up with more points from the previous few weeks’ leftovers, to keep that precious day free. Granted, you will have to do every other duty in the week, but some would feel that it is worth it. This ties back to the idea of perceived value. Everybody perceives the value of different guard duty dates differently, and this system maximises total welfare by distributing the duties efficiently based on perceived value, while not discriminating against any individual or group.
- Total Transparency. Total transparency is a crucial feature of the bidding system because it simply follows an algorithm which no human has influence on. Assuming that nobody hacks and manipulates the system, which can be prevented with enough security measures, everybody in the system can have the fullest assurance that they got the duty because they bid the least for that duty. In other words, out of the entire company, they were the ones which didn’t mind doing the duty the most, which is largely predictable and expected, which leads on to the next benefit.
- Predictability. A very large problem we face with guard duty now is that we have no clue which duties we will be rostered for. For example, in a particular week, person A could be rostered for 3 or even 4 days without knowing why, being extremely confused and angry at both the system and the planners, who then try to explain the situation before being frustrated themselves at these annoying people who argue without knowing the whole situation. With the absence of the unpredictable human factor, the bidding system provides individuals with predictability and comfort knowing that they do not have to do duties 4 times a week if they spend their credits well.
- Flexibility. The bidding system is extremely flexible, because it can be adapted to suit many of the company’s needs and wants. For instance, if there are particular roles in the company which should do less duties, then the number of credits given to those individuals can be adjusted based on the company’s consensus.
- New Infrastructure. Of course, with a new system, you need some form of infrastructure to support it. In this case, the guard duty planners will have to find or code a program which acts as it should without much hiccups. I believe that it is not terribly difficult, nor is it easy, but as guard duty planners, it is their duty to make it work, for the better of the company. Moreover, it is a one-off job, which subsequently makes their job as planners easier, as they do not have to roster people for duty.
- Outliers, Again. To be honest, this system is not particularly good at dealing with those who are unfit for duty. Many people in the company view them as liabilities and want them to compensate for not participating in guard duties while the rest are. Also, some might be tempted into reporting sick just so they can take a break from guard duty, which is a form of toxic behavior, but at the same time a perfectly legitimate strategy. I think that the point system is being too harsh on the injured, but I concede that there still must be some form of compensation. That being said, this system does not have that form of compensation not because it is not possible, but because I have yet to think of an effective means of doing so. The bidding system is very flexible, and a solution can be found if everyone puts on their thinking caps.
- SAF Regulations. SAF regulations might be a problem, as the bidding system completely ignores the presence of external rules, such as the one which states that NSFs cannot do more than 2 weekend duties in a month. However, the current point system already regularly infringes that rule, so I do not see how the bidding system is any worse. If, however, the rule becomes enforced, certain changes can again be made to the system to accommodate such rules.
- Contingencies. There were and will be many instances where guard duty dates in a given week are altered. This could mean that more dates are added into the week, or dates could be removed from the week in the middle of the week, after the bidding is over. This is extremely problematic for the bidding system, as it will be very difficult to cater to these contingencies with the bidding system. Hence, for such infrequent occurrences, intervention has to come from the guard duty planners, a necessary evil in these cases.
Making The Switch
The guard duty point system is one that has been in place for eons, despite all the problems and inefficiencies that come with it. Maybe it’s because of its simplicity, or the tendency to resist change because the system seems to work on the surface level that it has been this way for a long time, but there is so much good that can be brought out of making the switch.
That being said, I do not believe my system is perfect. It is far from it. Hell, it might in fact be worse than the point system, because of certain specific unrefined parts. However, I write this not to promote the implementation of my system, but to advocate for a system which lets individuals indicate their preference for a duty date, following which a fully transparent algorithm allocate the duties accordingly, maximising welfare and giving people assurance.
If you have a system that accomplishes all that, as well as addresses issues such as outliers or other problems, I am all ears. However, it is my belief that it is very difficult to understand the limitations of the method and suggest improvements without first testing it out. We can be the company that pioneers the bidding system, molding it into a suitable one for subsequent generations of NSFs to utilise and benefit from.
Appendix: Possible Improvements
If you have paid close attention to the specifics of the system I proposed, in particular the part about the calculation of credits given to each person every week, you might notice something contradictory to the idea of the bidding system. The bidding system is favoured because it lets each individual indicate their perceived value of a certain guard duty date, but doesn’t the act of distributing credits based on a calculation stemming from the different days of the week oppose this? It, after all, is an estimation of the perceived value of each date, similar to that of the point system.
Well, yes and no. No because if everyone has the same number of points, it really doesn’t matter how many points are given to each individual. Because the playing field is equal for everyone, every person can still exercise that act of indication in the bidding system. However, complications arise when the people unfit for duty for a short duration (less than a week) are added into the picture. Under the proposed system, they still receive credits for the days they are available to participate in duties, which causes the whole system to deviate from one of an equal playing field. These people are given credits based on estimated perceived value, infringing on the fundamental principles of the bidding system in the first place.
With this significant problem bugging at the workings of the entire system, let’s relook at some other ways credits can be distributed, such that those unfit for duty can rejoin doing duties for the same week in a fair way.
Calculation Based on Average Credit Use
Instead of using a pre-decided numerical value of credits to be distributed to everyone, the average number of credits which the individuals in the company uses for that day of the week can be used instead. This value is not fixed and should fluctuate slightly from week to week.
The benefit of this small alteration to the system is that credits can be given to personnel who are unfit for duty in the short-term based on the general perceived value of that few guard duty dates. This is not efficient, but it is at least fair. However, further complications arise when special dates, like that of Valentine’s Day, come into play. In such a situation, the average perceived value does not accurately reflect the perceived value of that special occasion, resulting in the returning personnel losing out to the rest, as he receives less credits than he should.
Delegation and Reward
With delegation and reward, the troublesome individuals do not receive any credits for that week, but are delegated a guard duty date which has the highest perceived value, or based on a matrix decided by the company, to pay back for the ‘rest’ that they received during his break from guard duty. In return, they receive credits equal to the highest bid for that particular date(s) which still has to do the duty (which should be equal to the 12th lowest bid for that date).
This system seems like a direct improvement of the previous one, and in some sense it does. It accounts for the perceived value for that date itself, instead of taking an estimate from all the previous same days of the week, removing the limitation of special dates having vastly different perceived values. However, the delegation must be based on a matrix, and not with the human hand, which could be difficult to decide upon and implement. Also, this system of delegation is already innately inefficient, since it resembles the point system.