Civil Service College: Preparing the Public Service for the Future

Four top public service leaders, including the current Head, Civil Service, reflect on the role of the Civil Service College in nurturing a robust, cogent and future-ready public sector in Singapore.

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What, in your view, is the place of the Civil Service College (CSC) in Singapore’s public sector—and how has that changed over time?

LIM SIONG GUAN: I have always considered CSC a critical institution for the transformation and forward positioning of the Public Service. Its mission is to help the public sector “be in time for the future”. This requires thinking about what Singapore can be in the years to come, and figuring out what the public sector needs to be to help Singapore get there.

It is not good enough to just respond to the needs and desires expressed by the clients, but to actively advocate to the clients what would be useful for them to “be the best they can be”.

While CSC, being a service provider, needs always to be responsive to the needs and concerns of its clients, it is not good enough to just respond to the needs and desires expressed by the clients, but to actively advocate to the clients what would be useful for them to “be the best they can be”.

PETER HO: It is important to remember that systematic training for civil servants began 50 years ago with the launch of the Staff Training Institute in 1971, which later became the Civil Service Staff Development Institute (CSSDI). As a young officer, I attended a couple of courses at CSSDI, which was then congenially located at Heng Mui Keng Terrace. In 1979, CSSDI was renamed the Civil Service Institute (CSI). Separately, a Civil Service College (CSC) was established in 1993 to train senior civil servants. In 1996, the inevitable happened, and CSI and CSC merged. The new entity, which was also named the Civil Service College, became a statutory board in 2001.

A major consideration of this move was to make CSC self-funding. Ministries and agencies would henceforth have to pay for CSC courses. That meant that CSC would have to compete with private sector vendors to train civil servants, including for many courses that it used to have a monopoly over. This forced CSC to raise its game.

Over the years, CSC has moved away from being just a training establishment offering both general and specialised courses. Of course, these remain central to the mission of CSC, and the College must deliver them well. But CSC has also moved in new directions that have enhanced its capabilities and increased its strategic contributions to the Singapore Public Service and to government. For instance, CSC has pursued an active publishing programme, including books on advanced concepts in government, such as behavioural economics.

When CSC was set up, one of its divisions was the Institute of Policy Development, which was supposed to take on the functions of a think tank, with a view to developing public sector leadership and policymaking competencies. CSC also set up an international arm, CSC International, to offer training programmes to foreign governments. When I was HCS, I encouraged this aspect of CSC’s activities. It supported the logic of Singapore’s efforts to connect to the region and the world.

One major outcome was the Leaders in Governance Programme, a programme tailored for top government officials both Singaporean and foreign, to learn from each other’s practice of governance. The LGP will run its 13th edition later this year. Its longevity is a real tribute to CSC’s efforts to sustain the relevance of this senior-level international programme to all its participants, from Singapore and beyond.

PETER ONG: CSC was first formed, in the 1990s, at a time when it was felt that the development of esprit de corps among leaders from different parts of the Public Service, and the idea of continuous learning among them, had to be strengthened. Several milestone leadership programmes—Foundation Course, Senior Management Programme and Leaders in Administration Programme—were developed as a first priority. Participants were given the opportunity to hone their strategic policy instincts across various domains and to work on difficult policy challenges with others from diverse experiences and backgrounds.

In a report I wrote in 1992, before CSC’s formation, I was asked by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee: “What does an Air Force pilot have in common with a PUB engineer?”, in reference to the proposal to develop strong esprit de corps within the leadership ranks. On the surface, the obvious answer is that they don’t have much in common. Yet, if the two were to rise to assume jobs at the level of strategic leadership, their different skills, knowledge bases and experiences in technology and engineering could help resolve some challenging issues, if they were to work together after having attended the same course at CSC.

This ability to convene leaders from diverse parts of the Service to come together to reflect on, and agonise over, cross-cutting intractable policy issues is a predominant reason for CSC coming into being. The strategic leadership needed to resolve many of these issues demands intense interactions across different parts of the Service: different roles of policy formulation versus policy implementation, external perspectives versus domestic concerns, different domains of economic, geopolitical, social, technological, and different orientations of generalists versus specialists. While other mechanisms like the PMO Strategy Group and numerous committees have since been formed to help deal with such needs, CSC is uniquely placed to gather such minds outside of their organisational setting and perhaps without the pressure of their home agency.

This ability to convene leaders from diverse parts of the Service to come together to reflect on, and agonise over, cross╦Ścutting intractable policy issues is a predominant reason for CSC coming into being.

This raison d’etre for CSC’s role—to develop strong esprit de corps within the Service—is enduring. This is because the policy issues confronting Singapore in the future will be more daunting and complex, not less. In addition, the forces that compel leaders to work together may be lessened, as single-issue imperatives and sectarian interests and voices grow more intense, given growing plurality in society and greater fragmentation mediated through technology.

LEO YIP: CSC is the spearhead for learning in our Public Service. It spurs the Public Service to answer the following questions on an ongoing basis: What to Learn; When to Learn; and How to Learn. The answers to these questions evolve over time, as the demands on the Public Service, as well as the available technological tools, change. As an example, today we can learn remotely and at our own time, compared to the classroom approach where everyone learnt together when CSC was first set up. To respond to these trends, CSC pivoted to digital learning methods by developing and launching the beta version of the LEARN app in November 2018. This is now a convenient platform for public officers to choose the courses and skills they wish to learn, and to do so online in their own time and at their own pace. This is a good reflection of CSC’s ability to adapt and change over time. CSC will need to continue staying ahead of the times, transforming itself, and pushing the bounds of learning.

What strikes you as most significant in the way learning has evolved in the Public Service? How has CSC responded to these and other strategic shifts?

PETER HO: One way in which CSC first upped its game was to look beyond the Singapore Public Service. This shift resulted in more imaginative programmes such as the Cross Sector Leaders Programme (CSLP), which brought together participants from within and outside the public sector, with the aim of building common outlooks and providing insights into how and why government policies are formulated.

It remains a reality that most of our day-to-day work is confined within the silos of government ministries and agencies. But it is important to enlarge this narrow view, because it will improve the chances that we will see connections, challenges and opportunities of the complex world that we operate in. In this regard, we need an environment that encourages the horizontal flow of information, knowledge and best practices. When CSC organises talks, workshops, roundtables, and conferences, it is promoting this horizontal flow, and enlarging our views beyond the narrow perspectives of our organisations. This is essential to Whole-of-Government thinking.

One of the underpinnings of good governance in our VUCA world is an understanding of complexity. CSC recognised this and set up a Complexity Interest Group to discuss complexity and its impact on governance. It even published a primer Navigating a Complex World: A Simple Guide for Public Officers.

This sort of forward-thinking positions CSC as a part of the Singapore Government operating at the leading edge of governance. Through such activities, CSC is moving information and knowledge out of organisational silos and achieving wider accessibility. This enlarges the worldview of our civil servants, keeps officers abreast of the latest ideas and trends in the world, and reinforces the foundational ideas of WorldSingapore, which arose after a discussion among public sector leaders organised by CSC’s then Institute of Policy Development during my time as HCS.

An initiative like WorldSingapore should be seen as a mechanism to involve people from different parts of the system to create a new common language and recodify information into common insights and a shared sense of common purpose. It challenged public sector leaders to shift from only doing things that we were certain would work, to embracing an exploratory and entrepreneurial approach, which acknowledged that some things worked, and others did not. While there was risk, we managed it rather than avoided it. In this way, we are better at coping with uncertainty and operating in the complex interconnected world.

Because governments operate in a complex environment, rather than a predictable one, many decisions must be made under conditions of incomplete information and uncertain outcomes. Conventional classroom methods are not very useful in teaching civil servants to cope with the complexities inherent in their operating environment. The military employs war games to help teach its people to cope with the complexity and chaos of the battlefield. But this pedagogical approach is largely under-utilised and often overlooked in the training of civil servants. As HCS, I felt that the Civil Service should deploy simulations, exercises and games systematically, using the shorthand of calling them collectively “policy games”. In response, CSC established a group called CAST, or CSC Applied Simulation Training. CAST built up capabilities in policy gaming. It rolled out policy games for CSC’s training and milestone programmes, and promoted policy gaming in the broader Singapore Public Service.

A willingness to explore new pedagogical methods will help make CSC a forward-looking and future-ready organisation. If it was policy games yesterday, today it is remote learning, brought about by the imperative of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomorrow, CSC must be willing to explore and embrace even newer pedagogy.

PETER ONG: Much has been transformed in the world of learning. This revolution of learning and education has been fuelled by digitalisation, the gig economy, the shortening shelf life of knowledge, pervasive travel (pre-COVID) and modularisation. In turn, learners now adopt a more hybrid and modular approach: consuming insights and knowledge sharpened by practice, in bite-size, often accreditable modules both online and on-site, flowing seamlessly between work and learning time.

Much has been transformed in the world of learning...The challenge will be for CSC to keep learning along the way and adapting with new innovation.

Such micro-learning opportunities can be always on. In such a world, institutions like CSC will have to curate the journey not only for groups but also for individuals. It then pushes online content and learning experiences to the learner and schedules on-site course time to fit into the curated journey.

CSC is already on this journey, but it will be a journey with no destination. The challenge will be for CSC to keep learning along the way and adapting with new innovation.

LEO YIP: There are two significant ways in which learning has evolved in the Public Service. First, we have come to place greater emphasis on the learner playing a much more active role in learning. When I attended leadership milestone programmes more than a decade and a half ago, there was a much stronger emphasis on one-way classroom downloads on subject content. That is contrasted with the much more diverse pedagogy and programme design of today that involves the learner more directly, such as through experiential learning, self-discovery exercises, and active group discussions.

CSC must build its capability to discern the skills of the future and translate that in a timely manner into learning content and programmes.

Second, the Public Service is encouraging individual public officers to play a more active role in managing their own growth and development. In this, CSC’s launch of the LEARN app in 2018 was a key milestone. It brought learning content in bite-size modules directly to public officers, who can now select the content that interests them or the skills they wish to hone, and to learn in a manner suited to their needs. This has greatly extended the reach and effectiveness of learning.

Looking ahead, we will need to continue to build our Workforce of the Future with the skills, mindsets and aptitude to do the Work of the Future. CSC must build its capability to discern the skills of the future and translate that in a timely manner into learning content and programmes. In this regard, CSC should see itself as the key learning institution driving SkillsFuture @ Public Service. This must include making continual skills upgrading a way of life across our Public Service.

What should CSC learn, relearn or unlearn to better serve the Public Service and Singapore in the decade ahead—and what should we never forget?

LIM SIONG GUAN: I would say CSC has to be very alert to not end up instructing the Public Service on how to be more and more efficient and effective in the things of the past. It must not lose its focus on the future—which could be a future which many of CSC’s clients have not thought about or are able to imagine as desirable, urgent and critical.

Thus, the span of CSC should cover the values and virtues which form the foundation of a Public Service highly responsive to the expectations of the public and businesses served by the government, the capacities and competencies the public sector needs to have not just for the present but for a future which extends 5, 10, 20 and even 30 years into the future, and the attitudes and approaches necessary to create a future which makes Singapore the best place in the world for Singaporeans to grow up in and make of themselves the best they can be according to their talents and abilities.

PETER HO: For CSC to remain relevant in our VUCA world, it will have to evolve continuously. It cannot stand still and rest on its laurels. It will have to anticipate and adapt to rapid changes and uncertainties in our operating environment. CSC must be prepared to set aside practices that may have worked well in the past, and instead adopt new ideas and concepts that may show little immediate evidence of success. This means sustaining the expeditionary thinking and experimentation that served it well in its first 20 years.

To succeed in the next 20 years, CSC must continue to act, first, as a coordinator of programmes that promote the professional competence and values of the Singapore Public Service, and that embed Whole-of-Government thinking; second, as a convenor of activities that extend the reach of knowledge and information across organisational stovepipes within and beyond government; and third, as a catalyst for advanced thinking and ideas for pedagogy and for good governance, playing the role of a think tank for government.

PETER ONG: CSC has a pan-Public Service mandate like few other agencies. It is an excellent communications channel to promote diffusion of the values and attitudes that we will need to thrive in future, such as operating as One Public Service, maintaining high public trust, and Citizen-Centricity. While these imperatives were stated in 2012 as part of the Public Sector Transformation (PST) movement, our journey is not done until the furthest reaches of the Service have imbibed them. Their underlying values have to be well promulgated and form part of every public officer’s lived experience.

This begins with the leadership, and here is where CSC’s work in leadership development programmes can make a difference. Leaders learn best from leaders, watching them incorporate these values and imperatives in all they do. CSC can bring change agents together to provide insights into new areas that the Service has to traverse in order to embrace the PST tenets fully. We will not have all the answers upfront. The agencies are often busy with day-to-day challenges. CSC can pick areas to delve deeper into Oneness, Trust and Citizen-Centricity to provide ideas for agencies to explore further.

And learning should take place in a less work-oriented setting like CSC. Such communications need not be always top-down, from leaders and mandated committees to the rest of the system. Communities of practice and interest groups within the Service should be offered the forum to share their ideas and aspirations to a wider audience.

LEO YIP: As the learning institution of the Public Service, CSC must be au fait with the business of our Public Service, which comprises policy development, implementation, service delivery, engagement and many other facets. New areas are also introduced and grow over time. For example, the Public Service is increasingly playing a more active role in public engagement and partnerships. CSC must ensure it is up-to-date with evolving business needs, so that it can translate these into learning content and programmes in a timely manner. Beyond that, CSC must also ensure that the learning-business loop is closed in that learning has actually enhanced business effectiveness.

Looking ahead, CSC, like the rest of the Public Service, must also maintain a duality of focus. It must both focus on generating programmes to meet today’s needs of the Public Service, but also determine the learning required to help the Public Service be even more effective into the future. This will require an understanding of the priorities of the Public Service in building the future.

CSC must also ensure that the learning-business loop is closed in that learning has actually enhanced business effectiveness.

We have succeeded and continued to thrive as a nation partly because we have learnt well. We have learnt from others, from our own experiences, and also from making sense of what lies ahead and how we need to respond. We place high priority and investment on learning and skills upgrading. Our education and now skills-upgrading system reflect these hallmarks. The Public Service must continue to be an effective learning organisation, and at the heart of this must be a premier learning institution, which CSC must strive to continue to be.


Lim Siong Guan is a Professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Senior Fellow in the Civil Service College. He served as Head, Civil Service from 1999 to 2005.

Peter Ho is Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore. He is Senior Advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures, a Senior Fellow in the Civil Service College, and a Visiting Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He served as Head, Civil Service from 2005 to 2010.

Peter Ong is Chairman of Enterprise Singapore. He served as Head, Civil Service from 2010 to 2017.

Leo Yip is currently Head, Civil Service and Permanent Secretary (Prime Minister’s Office, PMO (Strategy Group), and National Security and Intelligence Coordination).

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