The case for more effective public engagement is clear. A government that has a good relationship with the public is better able to formulate better policies, deliver better services, and achieve better outcomes for society. Well-designed public engagement can help a government draw on the knowledge and wisdom of a more sophisticated citizenry in order to illuminate complex issues, and involve committed citizens constructively in developing and implementing relevant solutions. Public engagement also nurtures common spaces in which citizens get to hear and appreciate the diversity of perspectives among themselves. Where interests align, citizens may themselves step forward to contribute towards better public outcomes, or to help address issues within their communities. Effective and sustained public engagement therefore helps to strengthen relationships and trust, both between the government and the public, and among citizens. The end result is a more inclusive Singapore in which people are engaged in service to each other for the common good.
Given the growing importance of public engagement to the work of government, practitioners across the public sector came together in 2012 to form a learning community, termed the Public Engagement Network (PEN), to help public agencies level up their capabilities in this area. PEN has developed a Public Engagement Field Guide to provide agencies with an over-arching framework for public engagement, information on best practices in public engagement, and a range of relevant tools. Singapore’s Civil Service College has also developed a Public Engagement Competency Model to guide practitioners’ capability development, and has implemented several training courses for public officers.
Towards More Intentional Public Engagement
Nonetheless, there are several areas in which Singapore’s public sector could do more to improve its approach to public engagement.
First, the relationship between policy development and public engagement processes should be made clear, so that the insights derived from engagement contribute to more robust policymaking. It is worth noting that there is no “one size fits all” model for engagement, because each policy issue is unique and will have a blend of hard and soft constraints. The level and amount of involvement the public has in any policy will invariably depend on the nature of the issue, the relevant constraints, and the decision-making space. These factors will need to be considered when selecting engagement approaches, for example, outreach, consultation or co-creation.
For example, where there are hard policy constraints and very limited options, a public engagement exercise premised on co-creation may lead to mismatched expectations and the perception that the engagement exercise is not constructive, or worse, disingenuous. A more appropriate engagement approach might be to provide more information on the considerations behind policy decisions, and then to mitigate the impact on segments of the public who may be adversely affected by the policy.
The key is to choose the most appropriate approach that best balances national objectives with public expectations of the policy. When done well, the public will have a better appreciation of the considerations and trade-offs behind the policy issue, and genuinely feel that the engagement process was authentic and led to better outcomes.
Second, public agencies could collaborate better on public engagement efforts, which are often not as wide or deep as they could be. Agencies typically engage stakeholders around their specific policies and programmes, rather than from the citizens’ perspective. But the issues that citizens grapple with are not always neatly organised by agency policy domains; often, their needs cut across agency mandates and boundaries. In tandem, government policies have grown increasingly complex and often require significant inter-agency collaboration at the policy level (e.g., Medishield Life, CPF).
Public agencies could collaborate better on public engagement efforts, which are often not as wide or deep as they could be.
The way the Government engages the public must similarly take on a collaborative approach: rather than adopting a reductionist approach, we should create opportunities for agencies to engage the public on broad cross-cutting issues, organised from the citizens’ point of view instead of through an institutional lens. This approach will help policymakers connect with citizens better, and develop a more comprehensive understanding of their diverse needs.
Third, all agencies should strengthen internal capacity and capability for co-creation and co- delivery with citizens. While PEN has helped level up public engagement expertise across the public service, the expertise and experience among agencies remain uneven. Agencies will need to invest more resources to strengthen their own capabilities to engage with the public effectively. While past engagement efforts have typically focused more on citizens as customers of our policies or services, the next stage of engagement will seek greater participation from citizen as partners, with a shared responsibility to co-develop and co-deliver solutions. Singapore’s public sector will therefore have to intensify capability development efforts across all agencies in consensus building, co-creation, stakeholder relationship management and volunteer management.
Public Engagement Past and Present
Public engagement has been an important element of the policy development and implementation process since Singapore’s independence. In the early years of nation-building, the People’s Association was established to engage with citizens on national policies. It helped to explain the rationale behind some of the less popular ones, and demonstrated the Government’s concern for the public. The feedback that was gathered from citizens helped to refine policies and their implementation.
Positive Steps Forward
The Government has taken steps to address these areas. While public engagement, policy development, public communications and service delivery are intimately linked and inter-dependent, in practice, within and across agencies, the process of integration can be uneven at times. While these are distinct areas of expertise, and typically reside in separate units, their work has to be tightly integrated.
In the last two years, the Public Service has made good progress in integrating public engagement with public communications, but we must not stop there. Instead, we must work on developing the appropriate inter-agency processes and structures that will support an integrated approach that brings together public engagement, public communications, policy development and delivery. This will facilitate the effective formulation and implementation of policies that meet and address the needs of Singapore and Singaporeans. Clear and intentional public engagement and communications on issues of importance to the public should be regarded as critical elements of the policy process.
To this end, Singapore’s public sector has started investing in stronger coordinating structures and processes for public engagement that will bridge inter-agency gaps, and identify emerging areas and opportunities for collaboration. The Committee on Citizen Engagement (CCE) under the PS21 Executive Committee will provide strategic guidance and coordination on Whole-of-Government engagement issues. It will work with agencies across government to build the spectrum of capabilities needed to involve citizens meaningfully in dialogue, co-creation and co-delivery. The CCE will also help agencies embed public engagement in their priorities, workplans and processes, and depending on their context and needs,includepublicengagementat various points of the policy cycle. This will include increasing meaningful and sustainable opportunities for citizen participation in the public sector.
Clear and intentional public engagement and communications on issues of importance to the public should be regarded as critical elements of the policy process.
Public engagement is core to the work of Singapore’s public sector, and we need to sustain our efforts over the long term, across all our agencies. Senior leaders in government and leaders at all levels must have a deep understanding of the interplay between public engagement, public communications, policy development and delivery, and intentionally weave these elements together. Public engagement practitioners and middle management in agencies should reach out to their counterparts across the Public Service to seek better overall policy outcomes for their agencies. Most critically, public engagement will only succeed if public officers are sincere, have a good understanding of citizens’ concerns and are able to connect with empathy. Our aim is to work in partnership with our citizens to build a more resilient and cohesive society.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yeoh Chee Yan is Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. She chairs the Committee on Citizen Engagement under the PS21 Executive Committee, which provides strategic guidance and coordination on whole-of-government engagement issues.