Governance in an Age of Uncertainty

How should public policymaking and service delivery adapt to an era of greater uncertainty and complexity?

Singapore has enjoyed a secure nation, a vibrant economy, social stability, and all the opportunities that arose from good governance for many decades since independence. In the midst of this success, renewed efforts to look after the aged, the underprivileged, families, and other vulnerable groups in society are helping to build trust, encourage community spirit, and provide assurance that our people can live purposeful lives.

At the same time, there are signs that the challenges we face as a nation continue to grow in complexity. Social issues have come to be shaped not just by cultural differences, but also a clash of social values. Public officers are also finding that Singaporeans care not only about the substance of policies but how they are formed, and that they want services delivered not just efficiently but empathetically as well.

Technological developments have also contributed to uncertainty. The rise of social media has helped to galvanise opinion and mobilise people to causes in unpredictable ways. As peer-sharing platforms develop, the line between producers and consumers is blurring, challenging policy frameworks based on this distinction (think, for example, of how AirBnB and Uber have disrupted the hotel and taxi industries respectively). The nature of change is such that even as regulators find a way to keep pace with technological changes, they in turn generate uncertainty by shifting away from the status quo.

It is becoming clear that while our key principles of governance (including long-held values such as meritocracy and self-reliance) remain relevant, the ways in which they are applied through public policies and practices — as well as how they are framed and communicated — must adapt to an environment of greater complexity and uncertainty. What should the public sector consider in making this transition?

Delivery of Policy and Services

Citizens form impressions of governments through their experience of public services. Today, much more is expected of service providers: as commercial technologies offer greater service personalisation and responsiveness to customers, citizens increasingly expect similar convenience from government services as well.

As the focus of public service delivery around the world shifts to user needs (instead of agency priorities), citizen-centred policy design and implementation have become watchwords. Where one size no longer fits most, the public sector is now pressed to tailor solutions for different citizen groups, while maintaining fairness and equity, within the constraints of finite or even shrinking resources. Public officers will need to develop the capacity and the right tools for sense-making, listening and empathising. They will need to acquire the wisdom to handle exceptions appropriately, while ensuring that customisation efforts remain sustainable for public coffers.

Systems that Can Operate in Uncertainty

In the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each blind man touches one part of the beast and, depending on what they touch, variously thinks the elephant is a pipe, rope or pillar. They only realise that it is an elephant when they take into account different perspectives to form a big picture.

The complexity of today’s public issues and diverse needs means societies must harness different perspectives and experiences in order to address prevailing challenges. While good service design and implementation can enhance delivery, they can only go so far when different stakeholders have different or even conflicting interests. A new consensus about the roles of different stakeholders in government, business and community needs to be developed. Public sector systems must therefore be able to integrate different perspectives; they must also facilitate more collaboration among agencies, and embrace more diverse types of public sector leadership.

In a more politicised environment, clarity and commitment to the values of public service will help ensure the resilience of our institutions of governance.

Roles and Relationships

Traditionally, the state has played the role of regulator and enforcer, providing security to communities, legal certainty to businesses, and crucial public services such as education and transport. In the 1980s, some states began to use market mechanisms to encourage efficient service delivery, for example, by corporatising agencies that provided water, power, and healthcare. In the first instance, the state’s main leverage was control. In the second, it was competition.

Governing through control and competition works well when policies are straightforward, but often fall short when policy objectives are complex. For instance, a government could optimise efficiency by contracting private companies to deliver food to the vulnerable elderly in the quickest time at the lowest cost. While this would fill stomachs, it would not address other priorities in looking after the elderly, such as the need for social interaction.

Beyond control and competition, collaboration allows a government to not only make better sense of the perspectives of diverse stakeholders, but also to harness a society’s many talents in order to create more public value than the state can deliver on its own. Collaboration also builds civic strength, teaching diverse people to work with each other using resources they already have, such as local knowledge, to achieve common goals. Collaboration also helps make a society more resilient, by diminishing reliance on one central node — the state — for security or social aid.

Jocelyne Bourgon, former Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet of Canada, has argued that governments need to achieve both public results (i.e. policy aims) and civic results (i.e. an enhanced capacity in society to contribute to public outcomes). Governments that concentrate on the first more than the second may find the citizenry becoming more cynical, dependent, and less resilient over time. To avoid this, delivery of public value ought to be “co-produced” and “co-owned”.1

While the currency of control is power, and that of competition is money, the currency of collaboration is relationships. “Co-ownership” means that the public sector must function more as a convenor and facilitator, not just as an enforcer of rules or principles which contracts with subordinate agents. In an increasingly diverse society, governments need to move towards enlarging common spaces, building consensus and making society ever more inclusive. Such spaces will allow people to understand different, even competing, perspectives. In so doing, they can help societies to manage intractable differences, and benefit from healthy debate and a diversity of ideas.

Amidst these shifts, the Public Service must continue to be professional and uphold the rule of law without fear or favour. In a more politicised environment, clarity and commitment to the values of public service will help ensure the resilience of our institutions of governance.

While the currency of control is power, and that of competition is money, the currency of collaboration is relationships.

Structure and Organisation

Diversity helps in grappling with uncertainty, but consistency and coordination are necessary to ensure alignment with policy objectives. The public sector must strike an appropriate balance.

First, at the national level, the Government has set up specialised statutory boards, each competent in their domain and focused on policy implementation in their respective realms, boosting efficiency. But this has also brought with it challenges. When each agency tries to optimise its own policy objectives (such as sustaining economic growth through immigration), it may hinder others (such as ensuring adequate transport infrastructure and affordable housing). What is optimal at the sub-systems level can lead to suboptimal outcomes at the systems level. This is most apparent in complex, cross-cutting challenges (e.g. climate change or population development), demonstrating the need for coordinating mechanisms across ministries and statutory boards.

Second, agencies have increasingly outsourced development and service delivery to private companies in order to achieve efficiency gains. However, outsourcing risks the erosion of certain professional capabilities, for example in engineering and project management, within the public sector as a whole. Savings in time and money may well come at the expense of institutional capacity in infrastructural development, management, and regulation.

Third, the government cannot outsource public accountability. Any service or administrative lapses by private contractors commissioned to develop or deliver key public services will hurt its credibility — even if the relevant institutions have been corporatised, privatised or devolved from the Public Service.

Addressing cross-agency issues through new structures

It can often be challenging to solve problems that cut across agency mandates, because of the vertical nature of reporting. Cross-domain issues can take a long time to address. This was one reason the Municipal Services Office (MSO) was established in 2014. It brings together 11 agencies to address cross-domain municipal issues. For example, certain agencies now take the lead on issues, such as public greenery and cleanliness. The MSO has also developed processes to help agencies handle public requests for footpaths, street lamps and other local infrastructure that cut across their boundaries.

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Broadening Public Sector Leadership

Within the Singapore Public Service, the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) nurtures experts to become leaders in the economy, infrastructure and environment, social, security and central administration sectors. They complement generalists in the Administrative Service.

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Public Sector Leadership

While public sector leaders must continue to uphold the values of integrity, service, excellence and commitment to the long-term good of Singaporeans, the nature of their leadership should adapt to more complex needs.

Leadership teams should comprise individuals with a diverse set of qualities and skills who also possess key traits that will allow them to be effective in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

They should be:

  1. comfortable with ambiguity and tensions, to grapple with the paradoxes that exist in complex challenges;
  2. adept at communicating with and engaging diverse stakeholders;
  3. transformation-savvy, and thus able to provide clarity, assurance, encouragement, and motivation to drive organisational change; and
  4. capable of governing networks, which involves balancing accountability, risk, and trust, and also building relationships through empathy and reciprocity.

Diverse teams of complexity-ready leaders will be needed at all levels, so that good, responsive decisions can be made quickly on the front-lines, without over-reliance on a thin layer of top decision-makers far up the chain of command.

Besides generalists, agencies will also need specialists and public entrepreneurs — those with the gumption to experiment with new ways of working, partner across sectors and step around hurdles. Singapore’s Public Service will need to recruit more widely: from those who show academic promise early in life, to mid-career professionals and managers who bring diverse worldviews from their varied experiences.

The Public Service will need individuals with different ways of thinking. Cognitive diversity improves decision making because it offers a variety of approaches to viewing a complex problem. That is why some private companies and governments around the world are nurturing diversity. The Public Service Commission of Canada, for example, is committed to building a Public Service that reflects the diversity of that country; they believe this diversity is necessary for government to be strong, dynamic, innovative, and excellent.2

New Operating Assumptions

The best systems will only work if the people who operate them understand and agree with the reasons for changes. In order for change to take hold in any institution, its underlying culture — the principles by which it operates and the narratives by which it understands its own purpose — have to be addressed.

Governance Principles

While the principles by which Singapore is governed are regularly reviewed (most recently in 2004), they have proven remarkably robust as a set of values by which to steer the ship of state through a rapidly changing landscape over the past five decades.

Singapore’s Principles of Governance are:

  • “Leadership is Key” — providing long-term vision, doing what is right rather than what is popular, being pragmatic and eschewing corruption;
  • “Reward for Work, Work for Reward” — encouraging self-reliance not welfare, and assigning people to jobs based on ability and performance;
  • “A Stake for Everyone, Opportunities for All” — fostering a sense of belonging through emotional ties and community participation;
  • “Anticipate Change, Stay Relevant” — organising government in better ways as well as building flexibility and adaptability in thinking.

Nevertheless, the ways in which these principles are applied in practice must keep up with changing circumstances. The effects of globalisation (and sharp disruptions such as the 2008–2009 global financial crisis), for example, have shown that individual effort and self-reliance alone might no longer be enough to ensure a decent living in a rapidly changing economic landscape. In 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam3 pointed out:

No government can have a hands-off strategy, where people are left to fend for themselves. Neither should we have hand-outs all along the way, because that just takes the dignity out of people. Let’s instead keep providing hand-ups, especially for those who start with less, helping them develop their strengths and have a real chance of doing well.

Policies in recent years to support more inclusive growth and sustain social mobility show that Singapore’s governance approaches are adapting to a changing context. The Government should communicate these adaptations clearly and empathetically so that the citizenry can understand the intent behind these adaptations and make sense of the changing circumstances that undergird the need to adapt.

Guiding Narratives

The stories we tell ourselves can be powerful in shaping outcomes and forging both a shared sense of our past and a common vision of the future.

For decades, the prevailing narrative underlying the Singapore story was one of profound vulnerability: we were the “little red dot”, bereft of natural resources and a hinterland after our ejection from Malaysia. Perhaps ironically, Singapore’s success and stability over the past fifty years has rendered this narrative less resonant: through Our Singapore Conversation, Singaporeans have signalled their desire for a nation which emphasises opportunities, purpose, assurance, hope, community spirit, and trust.4 Security did not feature prominently in our people’s aspirations.

Yet in the near future, technological, economic and social change may cast real uncertainty on the good life Singaporeans have come to expect.5 We need a new overarching narrative that encompasses vulnerability and aspiration, and is inclusive of the variety of perspectives that our people hold. It is worth noting that any narrative we espouse must be consistent with how Singaporeans experience public policy and service delivery in order to be credible.


Confronted with a future of increasing complexity and uncertainty, Singapore’s public sector will need to strike a balance between harnessing diversity for effectiveness, and ensuring consistency and efficiency. It will need a greater variety of leaders, who can help our institutions navigate change and uncertainty, at all levels. We must also adapt how key principles such as meritocracy and self-reliance are applied, and refine the narratives we adopt when crafting and communicating policies.

Diversity can help societies come to terms with and make sense of complex change. As a small, multicultural city-state, our strength lies in our nimbleness and adaptability; our resilience derives from side-stepping challenges, with the imaginative resources to find multiple solutions to whatever challenges may confront us in the age of uncertainty.


The author thanks Wan Chng (Assistant Manager, Institute of Public Sector Leadership, Civil Service College), Vernie Oliveiro (Senior Researcher, Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College) and Tan Li Sheng (former Senior Assistant Director, Centre for Strategic Futures) who provided substantial content and revisions to this essay.


Terence Poon is a Lead Strategist at the Centre for Strategic Futures, a think tank in the Prime Minister’s Office.


  1. Jocelyne Bourgon, “The New Synthesis: Preparing Government for the Challenges of the 21st Century”, Ethos, Issue 10 (October 2011):14–20.
  2. Public Service Commission of Canada, “Merit – Achieving Representativeness”, March 2008, accessed September 3, 2015, http://www.psc-cfp.gc.ca/plcy-pltq/eead-eeed/rprt/rprs/mar-lmar-eng.htm.
  3. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Economic Society of Singapore SG50 Distinguished Lecture, August 14, 2015
  4. Reflections of Our Singapore Conversation (Singapore: Our Singapore Conversation Secretariat, 2013): 4.
  5. The class of the 9th Leaders in Administration Programme, a milestone programme for senior public sector leaders, developed a narrative based on “Hope, Heart, and Home”, to which Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong added a cautionary note that the narrative of “fear” was still necessary.

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