Editorial Issue 10

Date Posted

30 Sep 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011

While there is broad agreement that governments will need to work in partnership with other sectors in society in order to adequately address the complexities of wicked problems confronting nations today, there is not yet clear agreement on how best to go about doing so. There is recognition that exceptional national outcomes arise from exceptional collective effort — with government deeply and productively engaged with public perspectives and contributions, as Singapore's Head of Civil Service points out. One initiative at the forefront of efforts to find a new, synergistic model for governance is the New Synthesis Project spearheaded by Canada's Jocelyne Bourgon in collaboration with several leading administrations, including Singapore. Among the Project's key outcomes is a framework that envisions the relationship between the public, private and civic spheres as a dynamic network of interlinking feedback loops that generates holistic public results; its chief value is to guide conversation and help uncover latent opportunities for cross-sectoral collaboration and innovation.

It appears that societies in which there is broad active participation and co-creation of public results are likely to be more adaptive and robust in the face of changing conditions. This notion of social resilience has also become an important element in the field of national security, where there is renewed awareness of the need to build up preparedness more generally and to set aside a buffer of precautionary, risk-bearing capacity; accepting some degree of systemic inefficiency in order to better deal with unexpected shocks. Indeed, civic sector leader Laurence Lien argues that the non-profit sector addresses important nuances not readily provided for by public policy, and can therefore play a vital role in maintaining the overall health of society.

Beyond concerns of national resilience, governments have also taken the cue from the business world in employing technology to solicit ideas directly from the community. Such crowdsourcing initiatives, supported by new "open government" strategies to release and unlock the value potential of public data, are very much in their infancy. Nevertheless, they already indicate an important new growth area for constructive engagement in the information age. To clarify thinking on public engagement strategies, Lena Leong from the Centre for Governance and Leadership outlines different approaches available to government and their respective best uses. Professor David Chan offers timely insights into the psychology of fairness, which can have a significant impact on the quality of interactions between stakeholders, and on subsequent outcomes.

Public engagement does not mean government responsibility will be abdicated or diminished. Instead, there is likely to be renewed attention on areas in which the public sector is clearly the most credible player. A livelier civic discourse calls on the public service to be more adept at serving as savvier referee, convenor, facilitator and co-investor. Making useful sense out of divergent views and emergent trends will draw on capabilities beyond the traditional mix of administrative skills. It may be premature to decide on any specific cocktail of competencies at this point. Indeed, the best strategy could be to develop a broad palette of skills and approaches that can be applied in judicious combinations in different contexts. Governance remains an art that will demand sound judgement, expertise and integrity, and also foresight, creativity, and an instinct for the national interest.

Other contributions in this special issue of ETHOS explore the shifting frontiers of governance: Senior foreign public servants participating in Singapore's Leaders in Governance Programme discuss the evolving role of government, and the values it should retain. Futurist Riel Miller suggests that the best way to embrace the future is to find and explore the potential inherent in the complex present. Bertrand de La Chapelle charts the development of new forms of jurisdiction in cyberspace. Goh Han Teck, from the Centre for Leadership Development, describes important generational differences that could redefine the nature and practice of leadership in the public sector.

I wish you a productive read.

Alvin Pang


Back to Ethos homepage