Inclusive and Iterative Governance

Two distinguished participants from Singapore’s 6th Leaders in Governance Programme discuss income inequality, talent and governance which balances the needs of the public with the challenges of the future.

Date Posted

15 Jun 2014


Issue 13, 14 May 2014


Mr Bui Teh Giang, Director-General, Department for West Europe & North Americas, Commission for External Relations, Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee, Vietnam

Mr Abdul Mutalib Pehin Dato Yusof, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communications, Brunei Darussalam

On Income Inequality and the Implications for Good Governance

Bui: Theorists have argued that there is a global trend towards smaller government, with the state acting as a service provider rather than as the classical ruling authority. In reality, there are relatively few countries where the government is able to become smaller. For the majority of countries, the classical situation still applies, but when we talk about a smaller government or service provision, the ultimate goal is, in fact, efficiency.

A government may choose to accept a widening gap between the rich and the poor if it means that a portion of the population moves ahead faster, becomes richer, and pulls the rest along on the path of development. Twenty-seven years ago, when Vietnam began its renewal process in 1986, 73% of the population was below the poverty line by international standards. Millions suffered from famine and hunger, but the gap between the so-called rich and so-called poor then was minimal. Today, poverty in Vietnam is 9.2%, after only a quarter of a century. So I think in Vietnam the choice of policy was correct. At the same time, we should not depend on this sort of growth for good, because it can reduce incentives for effort and lead to social instability, with political and economic effects that can bring the whole system to stagnation, or even worse, collapse.

Mutalib: Income and other disparities may be symptoms that public or private institutions are not working as well as they could be. A good institution is one that will implement its functions efficiently. This calls for good governance; good governance requires good leadership. This is the main challenge in government.

We need both dynamic people and dynamic leaders, but at the same time, we need to look at the system and its impact as a whole. Staff well-being, and instilling passion and a sense of responsibility in all employees, is of utmost importance: Are they motivated? Have they been matched to the right job? Are they being treated fairly? How long have they been doing the same job while in service? Have they performed? What makes them tick? You need competency, motivation and incentive, and the right personalities. You need well-rounded leaders looking after a well-rounded team. These are just some of the prerequisites of good governance.

On Nurturing Talent for the Future

Bui: There is a Vietnamese proverb that says that “leakage comes from the roof.” Leadership is of prime importance: it determines whether a government is good or bad. Meritocracy and zero tolerance for corruption are vital. The recruitment process needs to be based on qualifications, not on whether you come from a rich family or have a big company behind you. Placement and promotion need to be based on the best use of a person’s abilities and talents and effective contributions. In the final analysis, we are working with human beings, but that should not be a pretext for keeping an incompetent person for too long a time in a position, preventing others from engaging and contributing, and ultimately leading an organisation or country to failure. People should be placed where they deserve to be, and enjoy only the rewards they deserve to receive.

Mutalib: Change, or in this particular context, public sector transformation, does not happen overnight. Apart from the importance of having the right planning and implementation, the public sector will have to adopt a mindset of lifelong learning. The change must come from ‘within’. Generally, any good government will put their young leaders through processes and programmes to help build up their range of competencies. At the leadership or senior management level, we cannot afford to be pure specialists anymore; we must be generalists. Having to experience both the corporate and public sectors generally gives an individual an edge: the ability to see both ‘worlds’ in perspective. There’s a cross-multiplier effect when we bring our skills from one organisation to the next that can result in more positive outcomes.

The new generation of public sector leaders will have to get down to the ground, know people, what the real functions of institutions are, and what the policy big picture is. They will have to learn to respect the opinions and views of the others, and look at policy issues from different perspectives. They will have to learn to manage diverse groups, including people older or more senior than them, taking into consideration their different attributes, attitudes and views.

On Public Sector Transformation and National Alignment

Mutalib: Public policy is an iterative process. It must always be two-way: seeking alignment between national and stakeholders’ perspectives. Consultation, communication and public engagement are important processes that can help make sure that stakeholders are not overlooked. Before you introduce a policy, the people need to know about it. Through piloting exercises, where you allow for trial and error and plenty of feedback, you reduce the risk of public resistance to new policies.

One of the obvious indicators of how well your policy will work out is how well the public embraces the policy. But in fact, there are no straightforward KPIs. For instance, tracking the number of complaints that have gone down does not really tell you anything. It could mean that the public has given up. Of course, you also need a mitigation plan in case things go wrong. Accidents happen in real life. Tools such as scenario planning and risk management can assist in decision-making, but ultimately when a policy is already out there, you have to get engaged with the real stakeholders: the public.

Bui: When you decide to aim for efficiency, there is a tendency to narrow down the margin for manoeuvre. But in many cases, it is still important to make room for flexibility, to have a sense of readiness for risk. There is always a risk when you decide to devolve power and responsibility. At the same time, as a leader, you tend to want safe solutions. So how far are you ready to go in devolving your authority, and delegating to your subordinates to work on their own? That is a question that leaders everywhere need to address.

What I have seen here in Singapore is that despite the diversity of people and scarcity of resources, there is a unity of mind and action, all the way from the top leadership down through the civil service to the population. And that will enable you to move forward, as has been shown for the past several decades.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by CSC Senior Researcher Dr Vernie Oliveiro in September 2013. Mr Bui Teh Giang and Mr Abdul Mutalib Pehin Dato Yusof were participants in the 6th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP) organised by the Singapore Civil Service College from 26 August to 3 September 2013. Drawing from Singapore’s development experience, the LGP offered practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the eight-day programme, participants interacted with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visited key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.

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