Editorial Issue 12

In an earlier edition of ETHOS (Issue 4, April 2008), we traced the evolution of contemporary public services and surmised that, driven in part by technological change and social pressure, they would advance towards greater adaptability, fluidity and collaborative engagement across agency and sectoral boundaries. Much has happened in the world since, but this trajectory holds mainly true today, albeit for somewhat varied reasons. The global financial crisis has obliged many developed countries to pursue austerity in government spending, prompting renewed interest in innovative means of delivering public services that devolve the resource burden away from state actors. Globalisation has facilitated Asia’s economic resurgence — but the relentless traffic in value, labour and resources has also widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, and led to ever more diverse societies, with divergent priorities and needs that governments must juggle. The proliferation of social media and mobile technology has altered the balance of information — and of trust — between the public and the institutions they interact with, although it also paves the way for ubiquitous, intelligent services of unprecedented breadth. In many areas, particularly online, the scope and quality of public services lag behind the service standards set by corporations with global influence and scale: think Google, Facebook, Apple. For many countries, nimble, adaptive, connected government is no longer a developmental goal to aspire to in an ideal future — it has become a pressing, present imperative.

The accelerated pace at which change has taken place makes its own particular demands on the business of governance. In a recent address to Singapore’s Administrative Service, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for the Civil Service to embrace a broader range of perspectives from both within and without the public sector, in order to avoid policy blind-spots and to gain a better appreciation of the impact public policies have on those affected by them. He also expects the Government to be prepared to adopt partial solutions, in the interest of overall progress, if the time is not right for a fuller resolution of difficult issues.

Lord Gus O’Donnell, until recently the Head of the British Civil Service, has advocated a more pragmatic, clear-eyed approach to governance rooted in the behavioural realities of actual, often imperfect decisions made by individual citizens and households every day. To do so, he argues, requires a broader measure of what constitutes national wellbeing and resilience, as well as new tools, systems and structures to take stock of how well the country and its citizens are in fact doing.

These are challenges that Singapore’s public sector agencies have not only confronted but become increasingly sophisticated in grappling with, as they transit from transactional to relational modes of interaction with the public. Public-facing agencies such as the CPF Board and the Ministry of Manpower have developed a range of strategies for monitoring and differentiating service delivery. In an environment of growing customer traffic, rising expectations and increasing case complexity, these mechanisms help them channel scarce service resources to where they are needed most. The wealth of data gathered in the process is also becoming invaluable to policy design, and to the development of a new generation of more nuanced, citizen-centric services.

Sound and sufficient data could also unlock better evidence-based methods of policy analysis, assessment and design, helping to overcome false assumptions, stereotypes, ideology, habit and other cognitive biases endemic to the field of governance. Researchers from the Public Economics team in the Institute of Governance and Policy make a compelling case for the use of randomised controlled trials — already de rigeuer in the healthcare sector — to enrich and strengthen policymaking.

The experience of many public agencies also suggests that timely, credible, relevant and accessible information, appropriately shared, can itself be a powerful prompt towards positive behaviour. The Land Transport Authority’s experimental INSINC platform marries the objective rigour of transport data with social elements such as peer networking and competitive gaming to encourage off-peak travel on public transport, with promising results. MindLab Director Christian Bason points out that listening to evidence of actual public views has spurred civil servants to rethink their roles as public managers, and to redesign their services in ways that encourage citizens and government to work together for the public good.

The coming together of state and non-state actors to achieve increasingly complex goals continues to represent a rich new ground of possibility — and of anxiety. Public service veteran Peter Shergold reflects on the conditions and considerations necessary for such collaborations to succeed, while communications expert Geoff Wilson outlines key strategies for successful public engagement. Other contributors discuss worldwide trends towards more participatory governance in the context of globalisation, demographic transition, and growing disaffection with public institutions. It may be that the most successful governments of tomorrow will be the ones that not only do things right and do the right things, but that continue to earn the trust, support and partnership of a public that is becoming more capable and engaged than ever before. In so doing, they could open the way for new forms of public value creation and delivery to emerge: not by fiat, no matter how sophisticated, but through learning by doing and shared ownership of the issues that matter.

I wish you an engaging read.

Alvin Pang


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