The Singapore Public Service is not short on examples of Whole-of-Government (WOG) initiatives that help improve the productivity of not just the Government but also that of the private sector. That we have been able to pull off so many of them is a testament to the quality of our Public Service. At the same time, we are a long way off from being a truly Connected and Collaborative Government. Being connected and collaborative are ideals that the Public Service should have no difficulties subscribing to. Why then is it often so hard to operate collaboratively?
WHY COLLABORATION IS HARD WORK
The reality is that WOG collaboration entails many challenges. Most WOG projects are slow moving, with the pace set by the slowest member of the group. They also tend to be cumbersome, often requiring agreement, coordination and standardisation among multiple agencies. Standardisation may mean having to make painful adjustments to processes that people are used to. Often, no agency wants to take the lead, which entails the additional trouble of organising everyone and bringing them into line. If left solely to the agencies, a number of WOG projects may never have taken off.
If a WOG project could result in significant benefits or savings for the agencies, they might still be prepared to deal with the hassle of participating in it. For many other such projects, however, the benefits do not accrue directly to the agencies. Instead, the benefits accrue to the whole of Government, or nationally, although the cost is borne by the agencies. In these instances, it may not appear to make sense for agencies to be part of the WOG project, which often entails additional work, budget and headcount requirements, and management attention. While money can buy headcounts, it is far harder to commit the experienced management necessary to handle WOG projects adequately. Some WOG initiatives may also require us to centralise a function for improved efficiency, which means agencies would have to give up certain functions, resulting in a loss of control, perhaps over future cost, quality, direction or corporate identity, that the agency may prefer to retain. Other agencies may feel that they could get more mileage or recognition from doing things on their own. These are all legitimate concerns.
OPTIMISING FOR NATIONAL OUTCOMES, NOT FOR GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY
Many WOG collaborations also involve difficult trade-offs among competing objectives. Take the example of visa control to enhance our security. More visa control may diminish our attractiveness as a tourist destination. How do we strike a balance? If we optimise at the WOG level, both the Singapore Tourism Board and the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority will have to give a little. Giving a little is usually not the problem. The issue becomes more difficult when one or more parties have to make significant concessions to achieve some WOG objectives.
It is also possible to optimise at the WOG level, and yet sub-optimise at the national level. Take the example of the Public Trustee’s Office (PTO) which handles the small estates of people who have passed away. To determine who is entitled to the estate, applicants need to show proof of their relationship to the deceased. Spouses have to produce their marriage certificates. But this information is already available from the Registry of Marriages (ROM). A simple link-up between PTO and ROM would obviate the need to ask for the documents. However, if the PTO and ROM were to optimise based on just the Government’s interest, they may not see a need to incur the effort and cost to have an electronic link-up. Why take on an additional regulatory burden for the Government when the burden can be borne by applicants? The natural incentive is for the Government to shift the regulatory burden to citizens or the private sector. But we have to remember that our goal is to optimise at the national level. We should do what would make the most sense nationally, not what is expedient or even efficient for the Government.
Beyond regulation, the Government also has a role in improving national productivity by helping companies grow their top-line. Initiatives such as OneMap and the proposed Data.gov.sg are aimed at sharing more public sector information with the private sector, to help them to be more innovative and productive. We are also exploring how resources in our polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) could be made available to support the continuing education and training of workers. All these could mean a lot of additional work for the Public Service – to look at what we have, what can be shared, how the resources can be shared, and attendant issues including handling potentially large volumes of requests and suggestions from individuals and companies, once we start to engage them. If we were to look purely at the Government’s own costs and benefits, we may end up not doing very much. But this will also mean that we would be sub-optimising at the national level. On the other hand, concerns over the lack of resources and the capacity to cope are real and have to be addressed.
We should do what would make the most sense nationally, not what is expedient or even efficient for the Government.
A NEW APPROACH TOWARDS A CONNECTED AND COLLABORATIVE GOVERNMENT
What can we do to bring us closer to the ideals of a Connected and Collaborative Government? Drawing on Mark Moore’s Strategic Triangle framework,1 we should simultaneously address the issues of public value, support and capacity.
Public officers must have a clear sense of our ultimate mission and purpose. It is not to maximise value for our own organisations, but to maximise public value. It is not to advance our agency’s interests, but WOG interests, and ultimately Singapore’s interests.
If we can embrace this mindset, we are less likely to sub-optimise at the agency level, and more likely to optimise at the WOG and national level. What did not use to make sense to us at the agency level may now make a lot more sense if we factor in wider interests. We may find it a little easier to bear with the pain of having to move at the pace of the slowest member or having to make painful adjustments. We will find ways to re-prioritise and eke out the necessary management bandwidth for WOG initiatives, as we currently do if we are told that something is important enough.
How can we support and develop such a mindset? Public sector leaders must first embrace this mindset ourselves, and reinforce it through words and action, not just pay lip service to it. Given that whatever does not get measured, does not get done, perhaps WOG collaboration could be a new appraisal quality, since teamwork is already assessed. Since it is very difficult to get volunteers to take the lead for WOG initiatives, we should also find ways to recognise those who are prepared to step up to the plate and take the lead in such projects.
We can also give support through the provision of funding, as the Ministry of Finance has done in the past to catalyse various WOG efforts such as the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE), OneMap and the setting up of the Singapore Centres. More can be done.
We have to confront agency anxieties about losing control over cost and quality. These are the same concerns of agencies each time we decide to outsource a function. When we outsource to an external party, we can use contractual agreements to mitigate some of these concerns: we can write in rights and obligations, with penalties for non-performance; the contracts would have a dispute resolution clause. For WOG collaborations, there is no formal transactional relationship, no binding contracts, and seemingly no formal recourse if things do not work out. But even though we may not have formal dispute resolution mechanisms, there are ways for disagreements to be settled, often through the escalation of issues to higher levels. To give confidence to agencies to work together, we must be prepared to step in at the highest levels to resolve difficult issues when they arise.
We can put in place top-down directives and formal structures, but that would not be enough. To grow and sustain a collaborative culture, we also need informal structures and ground-up support. We need more informal collaborative networks such as Communities of Practice (COP) to encourage public officers to come together to share knowledge and perspectives across the WOG and to tackle WOG problems together. There are currently several COPs in the Public Service, in the areas of organisational development, learning design, Smart Regulation and so on. If they are effective, COPs can help public officers build networks, communication and trust – all critical ingredients to the Public Service becoming a more connected, collaborative and creative Government.
We need to help our public officers develop some basic skills to deal with differences and difficult trade-offs inherent in many WOG initiatives. Successful WOG collaboration requires high levels of inter-personal and organisational sensitivity, particularly for agencies taking the lead in collaborative projects. We need to develop the capacity to readily acknowledge others’ contributions, and give credit where it is due. Even if credit is not due, we can be generous and magnanimous. Interestingly, one of the leadership values that top Chinese cadres are expected to display is what they call “????”, which broadly translates to being “big-hearted”. It is the opposite of being petty and calculating. For us to have a collaborative mindset, we need to display much of the same spirit.
Public officers also have to learn the skills of managing trade-offs. They can benefit from picking up some skills taught in negotiation courses such as “focusing on interests, not positions”, and “inventing options for mutual gain”.2 In managing trade-offs, we need public officers to adopt a solution-seeking mindset, and be flexible and creative enough to invent options as opposed to adopting an all-or-nothing stance.
There may be fears about being overwhelmed if we take a more collaborative approach with the private sector. But, increasingly, this is the new environment that we have to work in. The Infocomm industry has coined the term “Web 2.0”, commonly referring to web applications that facilitate information sharing and collaboration. We should look at nurturing a Government 2.0 environment with similar characteristics. Australia has, in fact, set up a Government 2.0 Taskforce. Among other aims, the Taskforce examines how public sector government information can be made more accessible and usable to promote innovation. One of its terms of reference is to encourage “the active collaboration of anyone wishing to contribute and collaborate with the public sector”.
In this Government 2.0 environment, the call and demand on our resources can be huge. But our response cannot be to continually increase budget and headcount. For example, when we make available more non-sensitive information through the Data.gov.sg initiative, it could lead to a huge number of requests to release other types of information. We may not be able to give the same time and attention to every query and request, but we can develop filters and customised responses for the vast majority of requests that may come in, giving greater attention only to the more meritorious requests. In a Government 2.0 environment, we need to develop the mechanisms and capacity to cope with the increased demand on our time and resources. But we cannot hold back from engaging and collaborating with external parties just because we fear we cannot cope.
In a Government 2.0 environment, we need to develop the mechanisms and capacity to cope with the increased demand on our time and resources.
The biologist Lewis Thomas once pointed out that “the survival of the fittest is not a battle where the strongest and most dominating will prevail, but where those who cooperate best with others will.” His insight is very apt in our context. Singapore, given our small size, is clearly not the strongest nor the most dominating. But can we, as a Public Service, make up for this lack by cooperating and collaborating well as a WOG and with others?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Welch coined the word “boundarylessness”. He described it as “the idea that will make the difference between GE and the rest of world business in the 1990s”. For us, could “a Connected and Collaborative Government” be the idea that will make a difference between Singapore and the rest of the world?
This article was adapted from a presentation delivered at the Public Service Staff Conference 2010, held in July 2010.
- Moore, Mark Harrison, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995)
- From Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, first published in 1981 by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury.