In an address to the Public Service Staff Conference in early April this year, Head Civil Service Peter Ong put forward a vision of a transformed, trusted Public Service that is citizen-centric, collaborative and cohesive. This is not in itself ground-breaking — the Public Service for the 21st Century (PS21) movement called for a forward-looking, adaptive, service-oriented Public Service two decades ago. But times have changed. In recent years, a much more diverse and dynamic citizenry, accustomed to the quick-fire discourse of social media and keen to have a more direct say in national affairs, has begun to challenge the public sector’s own long-standing, assured stewardship over many public issues, in increasingly vociferous ways.
What was remarkable about Mr Ong’s proposition is how it recasts this potentially fractious context as an opportunity to develop new, more relational modes of governance. At this critical inflection point in Singapore’s development, the Public Service need not be on the defensive, but can instead use its considerable resources and influence in ways which not only accommodate the varied, restless energies emerging in society, but actively harness them towards the public good.
In this spirit, Our Singapore Conversation — the wide-ranging national conversation initiated by Prime Minister Lee in 2012 — has yielded many useful insights. An unprecedented effort to connect with Singaporeans from all walks of life regarding their ideas and aspirations for the nation’s future, it has not been without its challenges, nor its sceptics. Some observers are concerned that the process itself, instead of bringing people together, may have lent further credence to the many divergent narratives and competing priorities already at work in society. But the acceptance of ambiguity and difference is also a necessary step towards socio-political maturity. What seems clear is that the sincerity, passion and energy that the many participants, facilitators and volunteers brought to the process have generated a real momentum and camaraderie of their own. This sense of trust and purpose, grounded by hands-on experience, could well be a more enduring legacy of the Singapore Conversation than its immediate policy outcomes. They could serve as a powerful foundation for collective reflection and action in future.
In order to effect such broad change in constructive and credible ways, the Public Service, which remains the leading convener, aggregator and facilitator of national efforts, will need to strengthen competencies that may fall outside the conventional scope of its technical expertise, or indeed, outside the purview of any one agency. It may have to become much more comfortable with ambiguity in roles and outcomes, and learn to regard discomfort and uncertainty as a spur towards deeper change. Adam Kahane, former head of Scenarios at Shell, believes that only a committed team of stakeholders from across the whole system, drawn together not by any consensus except a shared belief in the urgency and importance of pressing issues at hand, can effect transformative change — he has developed processes to facilitate these creative, often difficult conversations. Douglas O’Loughlin, principal consultant at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, argues that it takes courageous leadership to embrace the diversity and potential conflict that is likely to arise from such broad engagement; Graham Leicester, Director of the International Futures Forum, believes institutional changes in culture are needed. They suggest ways in which such qualities could be nurtured in the public sector.
A recurrent theme in discussions of public sector transformation is confidence that the necessary competencies and attitudes are already inherent in the agencies themselves: but these have to be recognised, shared, and strengthened. Exploring different models for organisation change, researchers Aurora de Souza Watters and Lena Leong highlight the importance of clarifying desired futures, so that institutions can galvanise and motivate their people. It is a matter, it seems, of orienting human energies and systemic resources toward compelling ends.
For the Public Service, these ends are defined not by profit but by national interests and non-negotiable values that need to be reaffirmed and upheld — not just in terms of what is pursued, but also how it goes about its work. Values and culture that are perceived to be in practice, rather than those merely espoused, come to define public institutions and engender (or erode) trust.
The challenge of holding fast to honourable goals, while maintaining credibility and effectiveness in the face of rapid change, complexity and competing agendas, is one shared not just by Singapore but many countries around the world. Canada’s Jocelyne Bourgon has pioneered an international laboratory, based on her New Synthesis framework, for veteran practitioners to explore and share ideas on how public administration should evolve in this new milieu. The answers have yet to be fully determined, but some of the radical questions are now being considered in earnest.
I wish you an insightful read.