The Singapore Civil Service College has been using case studies as a pedagogical tool as early as 1993. Case studies were written for two reasons: first, to develop content for the teaching of programmes at the College and, second, to capture the institutional knowledge on the practice of policy development, public governance and leadership development. The purpose of case studies was to inform, teach and inspire public officers on the various areas of governance and leadership so that they understand the challenges, policy rationale and ethos of the public sector.
CSC’s earlier case studies were modelled after case studies from Harvard University. Harvard case studies were used as part of the case method which uses discussions and debates to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills. This way, learners participate in the learning process by having them teach themselves and one another.3 The case study—a self-contained description of a specific situation with conflicts and decisions facing a protagonist—engaged learners by placing them in a real event with real dilemmas. When cases studies were first used in the College, they were largely single-issue problems that occurred within a defined timeframe, from the point of view of a single decision-maker, mainly for teaching in class. The objective was to provide sufficient information and scope to raise a real question where there was no absolute answer. It was a focused and in-depth look at an actual problem within a specific timeframe. These cases were written up to describe the rationale and implementation of policies. Learners were given open-ended questions to discuss the issue presented. They would read the case studies, analyse a real-life situation and offer a viewpoint based on given facts.
Even as CSC wrote single-issue narratives, there was a realisation that many issues were multifaceted and complex. Particularly in the domain of public governance, policy development and public administration, policymaking is a continuous process which shifts as contexts change. Valuable insights emerge when policies are viewed over time. This led to an emphasis on detailed descriptions of context where substantial background information on the political, economic and social setting, including a comprehensive description of the rationale of policies within specific contexts. First-hand experiences and lessons of public leaders and policymakers were extracted through storytelling, then formulated into a narrative for both pedagogy and knowledge-capture.
The CSC case study no longer follows the pure tradition of a classic Harvard teaching case. It is a cross between a teaching case study and a knowledge-capture case study. CSC case studies trace the development of a public sector organisations across a span of time and tell the story of Singapore public governance through policies, people, structure and culture. As the essence of public governance is complex, dynamic and increasingly multifaceted, it was no longer practical to look at specific areas in isolation. Hence, the CSC case study is multi-layered and contains several strands of development presented within a single narrative.
Writing Stories for Learning
Even though case studies have been used in the training of public officers since 1993, it was only in 2002 that the Institute of Policy Development Research Unit was set up in CSC to conduct research on public sector governance and document important insights of how the Singapore government works.4 Research findings were written into case studies for knowledge capture and used in CSC programmes, particularly as part of the case method.
Outcome determines form. It is difficult to write a case study without first understanding the original principles and concepts of the case method while at the same time understanding the purpose of the case study. How, when, where and why case studies will be used define how they should be written—the case method works hand-in-hand with the curriculum plan so that the design and planning of the classes can meet the learning outcomes of the training programme.
The first 10 years of CSC's case development centred on the need and desire to capture tacit knowledge of first-generation policy veterans and public sector leaders who were instrumental to Singapore’s transformation since its independence. These case studies were detailed documentaries written from the perspectives of policy leaders and practitioners. The narratives described the key turning points of institutions, including their challenges and dilemmas.
In 2014, with declining reader attention spans, we began developing shorter case studies. The desire for deep reflections was replaced by an appetite for quick takeaways. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way we live and work. With prolonged periods of working from home, learning from home, or just being home, we see people going back to reading and showing a tolerance for longer narratives.
Learning through stories continue to play a big role in capability development. Today, CSC case studies are found beyond the classroom. They are published in books and with digitalisation, made accessible in the form of multimedia case studies via the LEARN digital learning platform of the Singapore Public Service. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The CSC case study will continue to transform as it stays relevant to the needs of learners and learning.
- June Gwee, ed., Case Studies in Public Governance: Building Institutions in Singapore (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 1–8.
- June Gwee, ed., Case Studies: Designing Change (Singapore: Civil Service College, 2021), 1–9.
- Corey, E. Raymond, Case Method Teaching (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 1998).
- Sharpening Minds Beyond Public Service Excellence, 2001–2003 (Singapore: Civil Service College, Singapore), 29.