Developing Our Approach to Public Engagement

Clear goals, thoughtful processes and mutual trust are key to constructive engagement with the public.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011

Singapore's success to date — despite being an open economy vulnerable to global shifts and a multi-cultural society susceptible to social divisions — has been predicated on a governance approach characterised by a strong government presence, with heavy reliance on good policy design, legislative tools and tightly managed execution to drive public outcomes. In the course of the nation's progress, however, new realities have arisen. The tightly-contested General Elections in May and Presidential Elections in August 2011 are indications that a more sophisticated and vocal citizenry desires not merely to be governed, but to be heard, informed and engaged, and to participate in the business of the nation. New technological tools are facilitating these aspirations, with or without the Government's intervention, and changing the way society interacts and relates. Newly-elected President Tony Tan has called this a "new normal".1 Professor Simon Tay has called for "a new compact" between the Government and people.3

These developments are transforming the work of government. The Public Service is re-examining how the changing aspirations of citizens and the complexities of its operating environment will reshape its role and the way it relates with the public. How can such engagement lead to better decisions, outcomes and relationships? What new capabilities might be needed of public leaders and officers, citizens and society? What can we learn that could go towards building a more accountable public service, active citizenry and resilient society?


In his 2011 National Day Really Speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out that the nation needs to "harness diverse views and ideas, put aside personal interests, and forge common goals".3 Experiences in Singapore and elsewhere have shown that tapping on the public for ideas and energies can guard against group-think, optimise resources and improve public policy results and productivity. Such efforts also fulfill citizens' aspirations and engender greater ownership of outcomes. If done well, public engagement "broadens the base of support, reduces the political risks and increases the legitimacy of outcomes".4 Opportunities for people to work together and interact create social networks which can have positive impact on individuals and spin-offs to the community at large.5 This can lead to more robust solutions, as well as more resilient communities and society.

Public engagement efforts are not new to Singapore. Nonetheless, it is useful to re-examine the broad range of engagement strategies so that we can be more intentional about what we want public engagement to achieve, and why. At present, the public is involved in a spectrum of activities: from providing input towards decision-making in policy formulation to actively participating in policy implementation. Agencies connect with the public through various channels and across different levels and groups.

Modes of public engagement can be categorised as four broad approaches: inform, consult, build consensus and co-create. The choice of mode, rules of engagement and process design vary with context and intent. In the long run, the aim of engaging the public is not only to resolve immediate issues at hand (what are the best solutions), but also to build capacity for the future (how to do this in a way that would help society achieve better results over time). The focus therefore is not only on output but process — galvanising people through shared values, a compelling vision and a sense of larger purpose; reframing positions from "I" to "We"; from "Me and my interest" to encompass "Us and the larger community". Besides performance-based objectives, engagement initiatives should also pay attention to experiential and learning goals. A purposeful approach and clarity about longer term outcomes will enhance the capability of all participants to listen, anticipate and engage constructively.

The choice of mode, rules of engagement and process design vary with context and intent.



Providing objective information in a clear and succinct way that helps the public understand the context, alternatives and choices.

The traditional channels for this include fact sheets, websites, open houses and press releases. It calls for good communication skills, such as sharing concise, specific and relevant information in a timely manner. As contexts, expectations and technologies evolve, other considerations come into play. First, public issues are becoming more multidimensional and complex. Second, communication needs to reach a more diverse populace. Third, a more educated and connected public expects greater openness and transparency from government. "Government knows best" responses are likely to alienate the public; and in an environment where no one agent has all the answers, neither can it always hold true. Finally, mobile technologies now allow busy but tech-savvy citizenry to stay connected even while on the move, anytime and anywhere. Efforts to inform the public will need to take into account these new developments and social behaviours in order to maximise their reach and impact.

  • Understand the operating environment, as well as the needs and priorities of different groups of people. Establish rapport, and explain complex policies in a way that connects with different segments of the public. Reach out through a range of media, e.g. public enquiries, on-line platforms, grassroots community programmes and other networks.
  • Develop expertise in info-communication technologies and capabilities to present complex information in new ways that can be readily understood.
  • Tap on the work of experts from the academia, research institutes and think-tanks to inform public discourse on the issue.
  • Balance advocacy with inquiry — explain and help others understand the reasoning behind the policy. At the same time be open and listen well, in order to respond more appropriately.

The aim of engaging the public is not only to resolve immediate issues at hand, but also to build capacity for the future. The focus therefore is not only on output but process.


Gathering ideas and feedback from the public on analysis or proposals by the government so that the public's perspectives, concerns and aspirations are taken into consideration.

Over the years, a number of channels have been established for public consultation in Singapore. The Feedback Unit organises focus group dialogues. Agencies conduct their own consultation exercises and website surveys to solicit the public's inputs on proposed policy amendments, or seek ideas on service design. Society is now more diverse in terms of culture, values and attitudes. However, social media, crowdsourcing tools and other collaborative platforms now allow the public to easily propose, consolidate, comment on and express preference for new ideas. In order to effectively harness collective wisdom and build shared perspectives, the design and management of the consultation process will be as important as the substance of the issue at hand.

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  • Determine who, when and what to consult, as well as how to include an appropriate plurality of voices.
  • Manage expectations and differing views; acknowledge and synthesise inputs, as well as close loops.
  • Empower stakeholders by anticipating their needs and giving them appropriate information, roles and choices.
  • Make collective contribution visible to dispel misperception that decisions were made prior to consultation. Collaborative platforms and other technological tools can be powerful enablers.
  • Build capabilities in dialogue, negotiation, conflict resolution, facilitation and process design, as well as a new mindset and culture of operating in a more open and dynamic environment.


Partnering the public in framing issues, developing alternatives and coming to a consensus on the preferred solution.

Consensus is achieved through deliberation and dialogue that help to deepen understanding, reframe and define issues, promote clarity and reach agreement. Decision-making could be jointly made by the government and the public, or devolved to the public. Consensus-building in Singapore has been enhanced both by a strong government, able to galvanise different constituents of the system on shared interests, and good ties between stakeholder institutions. Examples include interfaith and tripartite labour dialogues, where potentially divisive issues are debated and deliberated behind closed doors and an alignment of positions is sought before a unified stand is announced to the public. Public agencies have also worked with the public at the municipal level to resolve issues through collective agreement.

With greater social diversity, increased complexity and demands for transparency, more public issues may become contentious in future. More conversations may need to be selectively extended into the public space to deepen collective understanding, and build society's capacity to deliberate issues rationally in a safe environment.

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  • Focus on understanding (not judging) — this establishes a safe, orderly and objective environment in which to explore options, assess evidence and weigh trade-offs.
  • Use scenarios to set context, frame challenges and sequence questions. Good conversations, especially difficult ones, need thoughtful process design in order to move group conversations from a position of "I and my interest" to a more encompassing "We and the larger community".
  • Since shared ownership of the final outcome is a critical goal, include all representative voices and uncover different perspectives. Resist the temptation to gloss over differences or to let the most dominant or vocal groups capture the agenda in order to reach a resolution.


Facilitating broad collective action to engender greater ownership of outcomes and increase overall public value beyond what any one sector can achieve on its own.

In Singapore, the Community in Bloom programme, initiated by the National Parks Board and People's Association to foster a love for gardening and promote community bonding, is an example of collaboration between the Government and people. Other stories of co-creation include rehabilitating and reintegrating ex-offenders into society, promoting environmental awareness and protection, and neighbourhood policing.

Technological advances now allow near-instantaneous interaction between large groups of people. Co-creation extends appropriate data, tools, platforms and competencies to the public, encouraging them to self-regulate, self-organise and generate their own best solutions. This increases the government's transparency and accountability, and also encourages social innovation and the creation of new public value. Singapore's project, which opens up over 5,000 datasets from 50 government ministries and agencies, is a further example of "open government" efforts (see page 36 of this issue) that make useful public data available so that the community can co-create new solutions on their own initiative.

  • Begin with small prototypes in "safe-to-fail" environments and grow them, as positive results attract supporters and volunteers.
  • Help promising ideas to succeed more widely. "Government can take an idea and make it bigger (scale up) or it can take an idea and encourage lots of those ideas to grow in many places (spread)".6 Promote promising ideas through the network, and provide supporting infrastructure such as platforms, training and tools.
  • Pay attention to people as much as to the programme. Public efforts are usually driven by a compelling sense of purpose, vision or values. Success is often dependent on the ground leadership, strength of networks and relationships.
  • Convene participants and resources, and facilitate the growth by pulling multiple, disparate small-scale initiatives together, where appropriate.
  • Cultivate "start-up skills" such as experimentation, prototyping and learning on-the-go, as well as more long-term, sustainable capabilities such as risk assessment, management, relationship building and leadership.

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Public engagement in practice has limitations. Engagement efforts consume government resources and in the short term, can appear less efficient than decision-making by fiat. Public outcomes realised through co-creation can be inconsistent in service standards and outcomes, since the government is no longer in direct control of delivery.

The public sector will have to negotiate the transition from a stable and predictable operating environment to one that is more open and dynamic.

Additionally, public involvement in policy deliberations or execution could significantly constrain the manoeuvring space available to the government, possibly hindering its ability to plan and act decisively for the long term. Finally, a more organic, decentralised operating environment, with multiple simultaneous activities and a variety of players, can appear inchoate and difficult to manage, evaluate or account for.

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Furthermore, the challenges of effective public engagement are significant: the competing interests and expectations of multiple stakeholders have to be balanced and aligned, while also trying to convey the intricacies of government work, complex policy options and trade-offs. There is the need to make sense of simultaneous public input from multiple channels and players without allowing narrower interests or more vocal groups from cornering the agenda, while at the same time maintaining focus on strategic long-term objectives. The public sector will have to negotiate the inevitable transition from a stable and predictable operating environment to one that is more open and dynamic, where the government no longer enjoys an unchallenged legitimacy to act alone in the national interest.

Engagement is not a one-off event.

Not every issue needs to be consulted on, have consensus sought or be co-created; knowing when to use or not use appropriate engagement strategies in particular contexts will be a key to their success. The other side of the equation is the maturity and commitment of the public: all stakeholders, within and outside government, have a part to play in cultivating a constructive working relationship that can enhance national outcomes.

Engagement is not a one-off event. Its quality ultimately depends on the quality of relationship and trust stemming from the agency's record at engagement and delivery, as well as day-to-day interactions with public officers, leaders and fellow citizens. Change involves more than levelling up the competencies of those on the front lines. It has to be embedded into an organisation's mission, vision, values culture, systems and processes. There has to be a change in the mindset of governance: a "shift from a production or delivery state to a relational state, one that does things to or for people to one that more often does things with them".7


Lena Leong is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Governance and Leadership in the Civil Service College. Her work focuses on citizen engagement, change management and organisation development.


  1. "Post-GE Politics is New Norm", The Straits Times, (16 July 2011)
  2. "Governing Singapore after PE", Today, (29 August 2011)
  3. Lee, Hsien Loong, National Day Rally Speech, (14 August 2011)
  4. Bourgon, Jocelyne, Why Should Governments Engage Citizens in Service Delivery and Policy Making, October 2007,
  5. Putnam, Robert D., MCYS-CSC Social Strategy Lecture on "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century", March 2011.
  6. NS6 Network, Preparing Government to Serve Beyond the Predictable: Singapore Roundtable Report, edited by Jocelyne Bourgon, (Ottawa: Public Governance International, 2010)
  7. Mulgan, Geoff, "The Rise of the Relational State", Paper presented at the NS6 International Roundtable, London, United Kingdom, 16-18 November 2010.

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