Today, public officers across the world operate in much more hyper-connected environments, where issues are multi-dimensional and technologies are changing our lives in profound ways — Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates only a fraction of the content on its platform; Uber, the world’s largest transportation network company, owns no taxis; Alibaba, one of the largest retailers, has no inventory. Innovative models of businesses emerge as supply chains get disrupted.
For public officers in Singapore, certain realities remain unchanged — as a small and open economy, we contend with external economic forces and geo-political uncertainties. We will need to navigate structural changes in our domestic context as our society ages and becomes more diverse and affluent. As we enter a more mature phase of economic development, we need to continue producing good jobs to meet our people’s aspirations even as we ensure Singapore’s relevance in the world.
Challenges are also opportunities. Our vision of a Smart Nation will improve our quality of life by leveraging technology. In the past five years, we have also embarked on a Public Sector Transformation movement to design citizen-centric policies and services, serve as One Public Service, and build partnerships with the community.
Taking Strides Forward Through Transformative Changes
We have sought to innovate and customise policies to the needs of different segments of Singaporeans. An example is the Pioneer Generation Package where we partnered the community to help explain policies to diverse segments among the elderly.
We have also organised ourselves differently to serve the public better. To integrate work on early childhood, improve municipal services delivery and oversee the emerging issue of cyber security, we set up the Early Childhood Development Agency, the Municipal Services Office and the Cyber Security Agency, respectively.
We applied new approaches such as behavioural economics and insights, and design thinking, to improve our policies and schemes. For example, 3% to 5% more employers paid their foreign domestic worker levies on time when they received pink reminder letters which indicated that 96% other employers paid the levy on time. By offering free or cheaper rides at selected times and destinations, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) saw a 7% to 8% shift in the morning peak hour travel load and thereby eased congestion.
We are learning new ways of reaching out, listening and involving the community as partners. Our Singapore Conversation built mutual understanding amongst Singaporeans, and helped the Public Service appreciate the myriad of aspirations and concerns among different segments. Subsequent public engagements like MediShield Life and CPF consultations have built on these approaches of small group dialogues.
Partner Singaporeans and harness their energies and ideas for the good of Singapore — no one has a monopoly on ideas and the Public Service may not always have the answer, or be the answer.
Building a Better Singapore, Together
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has laid out the priorities for the next five years — keeping our nation safe and secure; ensuring growth, jobs and opportunities; taking care of Singaporeans; and transforming and greening our home. All these are underpinned by good governance, which the Public Service will seek to deliver while focusing on three broad areas.
The first is to partner Singaporeans and harness their energies and ideas for the good of Singapore — no one has a monopoly on ideas and the Public Service may not always have the answer, or be the answer. We are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to crowdsource, consult and co-create — both within the Service and with Singaporeans — as we shape our future together. The upcoming Jurong Lake Gardens will be a people’s garden, developed based on ideas from the public, with more than 17,700 suggestions received through a public engagement exercise. SGfuture is another opportunity for Singaporeans to discuss how we can realise our dreams and aspirations for our country collectively.
The second is to move towards a digital government, which involves two key aspects. One is “digitising the Government” for which the Public Service will leverage technology and data to a greater extent. We want to use mobile platforms to improve our service delivery, especially as Singapore has one of the highest smart phone penetration rates in the world. By early next year, we will introduce the new “MyInfo” feature on our eCitizen portal, where citizens need only provide their personal data once to the Government, instead of repeatedly doing so for every electronic transaction with us. We will start with e-services such as applications for HDB flats and the Baby Bonus Scheme, and progressively extend this feature to more e-services over time.
We also want to ride the wave of big data to make better policy and planning decisions. Beeline, a “live experiment” by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore and LTA, crowdsources suggestions and uses big data to find more direct and viable bus routes. Results are provided to private transport companies and they can list bus routes on the app which commuters can then use to reserve seats.
The other aspect is “governing the digital”, which means putting in place the platforms, processes and policies to foster invention and co-creation. We want to provide access to and improve the quality of open data so that new insights and solutions can be derived by a wider community of researchers, data scientists, and developers. This year, we released additional transport data sets and revamped our government open data portal to make it more user-friendly. Concurrently, we will take steps to mitigate the risks of new technology, particularly in cyber-security, personal data protection and ensuring no one is left behind.
Beyond hard structural changes, we must internalise systems thinking and collaboration as part of our shared culture so that it will be second nature for all of us to work across agency boundaries and tackle issues of priority.
The third is to be an integrated and nimble Public Service. We call this “Whole-of-Government” (WOG). We have put in place processes such as the No Wrong Door policy and First Responder Protocol, and set up the Strategy Group under the Prime Minister’s Office to improve WOG coordination. Beyond hard structural changes, we must internalise systems thinking and collaboration as part of our shared culture so that it will be second nature for all of us to work across agency boundaries and tackle issues of priority. We will then be able to tap on the wisdom of crowds as well as innovate and adapt as we work at delivering higher public value.
People must be at the heart of this transformation we seek for the Public Service. We are committed to supporting officers in acquiring future-relevant skills that will allow them to advance to their next job, by mapping out career pathways and competencies required. Our Public Service Leadership Programme has been launched to systematically provide development opportunities for close to 700 sectoral and specialist leaders all across the Public Service as we recognise the importance of deep skills and capabilities to govern in a complex world. When our people are empowered and equipped, we can achieve transformational results for Singapore and Singaporeans.
Gearing Up for The Future Ahead
2015 had been a year of reflection and celebration, as we marked our 50th birthday as a nation. The Public Service came together to support the nation in its grief, when we honoured our founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and celebrated as one for the 28th SEA Games. For the Public Service, it was a very special year for all of us to reaffirm our values and beliefs — of integrity, service and excellence — and to recommit ourselves to our mission of keeping Singapore special for many more decades to come.
We are starting a new chapter that will bring us closer to SG100. How our Singapore story will unfold will depend on bold ideas, a whole-of-nation effort and the gumption to make it happen. In partnership with Singaporeans, public officers have an opportunity to be tomorrow’s pioneers through the journeys we take today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Ong is the Head of Singapore’s Civil Service and concurrently Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Finance and Permanent Secretary (Special Duties) at the Prime Minister’s Office.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times on 5 November 2015.