Engaging Citizens in the Digital Age

As public engagement grows online, the Public Service will need a strong social media policy that integrates both online and offline strategies as well as mindset and role shifts in service delivery to truly reap the benefits of social media.

Engaging Citizens in the Digital Age

Engaging Citizens: A Priority for the Public Service

Public engagement is not new to the Singapore government. With a vision to be “One Trusted Public Service with Citizens at the Centre”, our public agencies are continually monitoring and making sense of ground sentiments in the process of policy development and service delivery. The Public Service does not work in isolation, even though it is not always easy to get the whole public — including private individuals, businesses and civic groups — to fully appreciate all the considerations and trade-offs involved in policymaking. Nevertheless, effective public engagement results in better policies and services that take into account the needs of citizens in different circumstances. It can also increase mutual trust and shared ownership of policy outcomes, as more public issues become multi-dimensional and cut across traditional agency, demographic or sectoral boundaries.

"We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there."

—Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam1

Platforms to Engage the Public Over the Years

In the early years of Singapore’s independence, the priority in government engagement was to get the word out to citizens from all walks of life in order to help them understand the key messages and rationale behind public policies. One of the Government’s initial campaigns, “Keep Singapore Clean”, saw posters and banners in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — Singapore’s four official languages — displayed in public places. Other forms of communication included leaflets, pamphlets, car-bumper stickers, stick-up strips, postal items and cinema tickets with stamps of the campaign slogan as well as public education talks and lectures.2 Subsequently, other campaigns such as the “National Courtesy”, “Speak Mandarin” and “Stop at Two” were launched using a mixture of these mediums to communicate government policies.

As Singapore developed and the public became more educated and outspoken, communication platforms were set up for citizen voices to be heard. For example, the Feedback Unit was set up in 1985 to explain policies and assess sentiments on public issues through face-to-face platforms such as dialogues, tea sessions and conferences. In September 2000, the Speakers’ Corner at the Hong Lim Park was made available for citizens to give public speeches without having to obtain a Public Entertainment Licence. Subsequently in 2008, restrictions were further eased to allow demonstrations by citizens to be held without a police permit.3 This reflected the Government’s receptivity to more diverse platforms for citizen views.4

Engaging the Nation: Our Singapore Conversation

In August 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the need for “Our Singapore Conversation” (OSC) to engage Singaporeans on our desired future for the country. Open-ended group conversations and discussions were held to generate ideas on the public’s aspirations while the Ministries held thematic dialogues on housing, education, healthcare and jobs.

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Effective public engagement can also increase mutual trust and shared ownership of policy outcomes.

The New Digital Imperative

With the advent of fast, ubiquitous internet access and a broad range of digital platforms, more Singaporeans began to go online to express their views on public issues. In 2014, it was estimated that mobile population and wireless broadband population penetration rates had reached 148% and 184% respectively, based on the total number of subscriptions versus total population.5 Each Singapore adult owned an average of 3.3 connected devices. Laptop and desktop computer users spent 4.7 hours and mobile device users spent 2.3 hours on the internet each day.6 Today, the internet has become an important channel for communication and engagement that no government can afford to ignore.

The rise of social media platforms,7 such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and WordPress, has attracted large numbers of users to share content with each other, particularly a new generation of digital natives who have grown up with the internet.8 Social media platforms are also more likely to appeal to the Generation Y who grew up with the internet. For example, an Institute of Policy Studies Survey9 in 2010 revealed that Singaporeans aged 21 to 39 years old read more about politics on the internet, and trusted the internet as a source of political news slightly more than older people. They also tended to participate more in online political activities such as taking part in online political forums. Thus, as the Government seeks to interest Singaporeans in public issues, social media provides tremendous opportunities to extend the reach of engagement efforts, as well as to receive near-instantaneous feedback on its policies and services — that is, if public agencies are prepared for digital engagement.

The Public Service has shifted its overall digital strategy from a “government-to-you” approach to a “government-with-you” approach

Several public sector-wide developments have arisen to support digital engagement efforts. In October 2006, the Feedback Unit was restructured as “Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry @ Home” (REACH), and tasked with facilitating communication between Singaporeans and the Government through a variety of electronic channels. REACH expanded its social media platforms to include interactive discussion forums, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; by 2014, it had received 27,140 pieces of online feedback, more than double of that received in 2009.10

The Public Service has also shifted its overall digital strategy from a “government-to-you” approach to a “government-with-you” approach — a move supported by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA)’s eGov2015 Masterplan.11 Among the key thrusts of this transition towards a more collaborative government is to better connect citizens in ways that would allow the views and resources of citizens to be actively harnessed to improve policy outcomes. By the second half of 2016, two new agencies — the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) and the Government Technology Organisation (GTO) — will be established to further digital transformation efforts and encourage the participation of citizens in the co-creation of public digital services.12

"Public engagement is an ongoing intentional process for the government that aims to build relationships and, together with the public, produce better policies, services and outcomes for society."

— “Public Engagement 101, Defining the Public Engagement Framework”, PS21 Office, Public Service Division

Successful Digital Public Engagement

While these whole-of-government efforts take root, individual agencies have a vital part to play in ensuring the success of digital citizen engagement efforts. A number of elements are vital to this effort:

  1. A robust social media policy
  2. Besides taking steps to make websites more mobile-friendly to reflect the public’s changing usage patterns, agencies need to decide which social media platforms they will adopt and the purposes they fulfil. A robust social media infrastructure includes clear guidelines on how the use of social media platforms fits into the agency’s overall engagement strategy. For example, the plan should lay out how physical and digital platforms complement each other, depending on the context, to broaden the agency’s engagement reach. There should also be clear guidelines on when and how online incidents should be escalated, and how public comments should be moderated, especially if they remain anonymous, in line with each agency’s code of conduct (see box story on “Creating a Suitable Online Persona”).

    Creating A Suitable Online Persona

    The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) was recently lauded in The Straits Times for its creative posts that won Facebook fans.

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  3. A proactive and citizen-centric mindset in every public officer
  4. Public agencies should be proactive in public engagement. A citizen-centric mindset ought to be ingrained in every organisation and every public officer, whether they are involved in policy development or service delivery. To this end, many agencies are already working to resolve day-to-day issues together with citizens, using digital platforms that are based heavily on public input.

    Government-Citizen Collaboration Using Social Platforms

    OneService (
    Jointly developed by the Municipal Services Office (MSO) and IDA, this award-winning mobile application gathers location-based public feedback on a variety of municipal issues (e.g., cleanliness, footpaths, animals in public places). Its map-based photo geo-tagging features help agencies to respond to and resolve issues quickly. Reported cases are also routed automatically to the appropriate public agencies for follow up.

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  5. Cultivate long-term relationships with citizens
  6. For public engagement to be effective, time and effort need to be invested to build a relationship between government and citizens on a long-term basis; it is not a matter of engaging the public only when a crisis happens. In the digital age, building rapport and trust with netizens become even more important because online chatter can blow up issues or change public perceptions of policies overnight — with consequences that spill over beyond the online realm. If trust and goodwill have been built up over time however, matters are less likely to get out of control when something negative happens. In addition, it becomes easier to encourage active, constructive participation in consultation or collaboration efforts, if public agencies have a strong and deep relationship with the public. Leading by example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has had four successful years of engaging with the public through his regularly updated Facebook page, which is followed by some 1 million netizens.13 Many have thanked him for his sincere sharing, and for helping them to better understand public policies.

  7. Ensure public officers are ready for new roles in digital engagement
  8. Engaging the public through social media platforms will also demand new roles and competencies. Besides being digital media savvy, social media analytics will become increasingly important. The private sector has a head start in analysing customer data from social media to enhance its product and service offerings. For example, the Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) Banking Group have developed a goMoney mobile application, backed by analytics to receive insights on how to better streamline consumer experiences based on online banking behaviours.14 In the government sector, social media analytics could offer insights to spot important emerging patterns and needs. Available data will have to be integrated and analysed intelligently, both within and across individual agencies, in order to enable whole-of-government decision-making that can better serve the public.

  9. Work more efficiently to respond promptly to digital feedback
  10. While digital platforms can help to connect the Government to citizens on a 24-7 basis, public officers may not be able to respond to feedback and suggestions, nor reciprocate with solutions, quite as readily, since some matters have deeper policy implications that need to be deliberated. At the same time, the speed at which misinformation can spread through social media platforms is such that agencies can be caught off guard, with little time to put together an appropriate and informed response. Public agencies must be alert to monitor online chatter at all times, and be prepared to work more efficiently and respond to netizens more quickly, while still ensuring that the information they provide is accurate and appropriately communicated.

Setting the Record Straight Online

In September 2015, there were online rumours that the Government conducted cloud seeding operations to reduce the impact of haze for the Formula 1 race.

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The digital era has transformed the landscape for public engagement across all sectors. It presents many opportunities for the Government to better engage the public. However, digital forms of engagement need to be integrated with physical platforms, and judiciously managed in order to be inclusive and fulfil all the various objectives of public engagement and communication. Besides whole-of-government efforts, the Public Service must help individual agencies and officers to cultivate a citizen centric mindset, develop the desired capabilities and improve service standards for the new digital arena, so as to tap on the possibilities of social media as it continues to evolve.


Cindy Tan is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College.


  1. Speech delivered at the Annual Public Service Leadership Dinner, 27 October 2015, accessed 4 February 2016,
  2. National Library Board, “Keep Singapore Clean Campaign”, accessed 4 February 2016, SIP_1160_2008-12-05.html.
  3. Cheryl Sim, “Speakers’ Corner”, NLB Infopedia, accessed 19 February 2016, http:// SIP_515_2005-01-25.html.
  4. Recent notable events held at Hong Lim Park include protest against the Population White Paper that drew more than 4,000 people in February 2013 and the CPF protest that attracted 3,000 attendees in September 2014. These protests helped to ag particular perspectives on issues close to citizens’ hearts.
  5. Ministry of Social and Family Development, “Singapore Social Statistics in Brief 2015”, accessed 19 February 2016, http://app.msf. Singapore-Social-Statistics-In-Brief.
  6. Simon Kemp, “Digital, Social & Mobile in 2015”, accessed 4 February 2016, digital-social-mobile-2015.
  7. nition/ english/social-media
  8. Generation Y were born between 1980 and 2000. More information from http://www.
  9. Tan Tarn How, Chung Siyoung and Zhang Weiyu, “Survey on Political Traits and Media Use. Singapore Youth: Different, but not that different” (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies, 2012), accessed 4 February 2016, uploads/sites/2/2013/07/Media-Survey- Summary_230511.pdf.
  10. “Welcome address at Reach Contributors’ Forum 2015”, REACH, 3 August 2015, accessed 4 February 2016, https://www.reach.
  11. Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, “E-Government Masterplan 2011-2015 Collaborative Government”, accessed February 4, 2016, masterplans/egov-2015/vision-strategic-thrusts ;jsessionid = E1902C4184A8A5D13A7C73B79 D7D480D.
  12. Ministry of Communications and Information, “Infocomm Media”, 18 January 2016, accessed 4 February 2016, press-releases/content/formation-of-infocomm-media-development-authority-and-government- technology-organisation.
  13. As of May 2016.
  14. Erika Maguire, “6 Strategies to Drive Customer Engagement in 2015”, 29 January 2015, accessed June 20, 2016,

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