Opinion: Preparing Public Officers for New Modes of Governance

Public service training and development should evolve in tandem with the dynamic, relational modes of governance that are emerging.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011

Government in Singapore has experienced several transformative shifts since independence in 1965, broadly categorised by the following stages, each building on the previous phases of development:

    I. Providing basic services to citizens, and dealing with fundamental security imperatives.

    II. Becoming cost-efficient in a world of scarcity.

    III. Establishing enduring, long-run institutions that maintain efficiency beyond the short term, in response to internal and external volatility.

    IV. Cultivating and sustaining institutions that are adaptive, innovative and change-ready, in order to navigate the growing complexity and uncertainty that has arisen from globalisation and accelerating change.

    V. Moving beyond impersonal institutions to curate governance that is relational, empathetic and engaging in dealing with diversity of citizen and stakeholder expectations and interests. This diversity predates, but has been uniquely enabled by, the growth of social media.

These stages are not mutually exclusive. Instead, each encompasses and extends on the previous. With each transformation, the demands on and expectations of government grow in magnitude, diversity and complexity.

Singapore moved from Stage I to Stage II relatively quickly during the industrialisation drive of the 1970s. The transition to Stage III occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to the prospect of internal political change after Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister, as well as international volatility arising from the collapse of the Eastern bloc. In the mid-1990s, the building of long-run institutions dovetailed with the early stages of the PS21 movement.

Government in Stages I to III required efficient, efficacious and effective meeting of public needs, adopting what economists would call "optimisation" measures to carry out the functions of government at the least possible cost. Particularly from Stage II onwards, "lean" government was very much in vogue and outsourcing of ostensibly secondary services became more prevalent.


Government currently operates somewhere between Stages IV and V. This involves several key roles:

  • Operating at the frontiers of trade-offs and making difficult prioritisations. The double-digit growth of our early years, and of recent post-recession times, cannot be sustained indefinitely. We are operating on, rather than within, our production possibility frontier, and the opportunity costs of our policy choices will be felt more acutely, until and unless we can shift the frontier outward through technological transformation. Increasingly, we will make policy under assumptions of some level of austerity, rather than resource abundance.
  • Being creative and finding new sources of ideas, innovation and productivity, rather than relying on tried-and-tested policy options. This may require shielding small groups of officers to conduct such work, akin to "skunk work" groups or the growing number of futures units in the government who are given the freedom to consider out-of-the-box issues, without being bogged down in daily routines.
  • Working with and harnessing the potential of the private and people sectors to deliver "governance", a concept beyond the exclusive remit of the public sector. Governance is less of an "elite" endeavour than traditional "government". Instead, it involves a spectrum of cooperative modalities, from consulting outside government on a range of policy options generated by policymakers; coordinating amongst different groups that each have interests in particular aspects of a policy area; co-creating policy with non-government entities when appropriate; or even community-ownership of policy areas where there are no particular public good functions to be met by government provision.
  • Navigating a state of constant adaptation and innovation rather than having the comfort of any stable "equilibrium". Instead of seeking elusive "right" answers from the inception of a policy, policymakers will find themselves leaning towards more iterative and experimental approaches, which emphasise the process of governance as much as the final product. Incremental improvements on initial prototypes, rather than pre-packaged policy that is "ready upon delivery", will become more common.
  • Working beyond "hard" policy options and embracing the need for "softer" aspects like effective engagement of citizens, resonant communication and making policy that connects emotively, not just analytically; with the "heart", not just the "head". This will involve policymakers seeing the public not just as taxpayers and customers or service-receivers in transactional relationships, but more as citizens with a stake and role in Singapore's collective future.


The current stages of governance will require capabilities that are qualitatively different from those required earlier. In particular, efficiency-focused approaches will need to evolve to allow spare capacity for officers to deal with complex and often untidy situations.

It is likely that the exact capability set required for such governance will not be static. Instead, it will be dynamic and kaleidoscopic, shifting and evolving as governance acquires new facets and dimensions. Nonetheless, several key ideas can already be discerned:

  • As uncertainty grows in what Anthony Giddens has called our "runaway world",1 policy work will increasingly be less direct and less amenable to clear solutions that can be determined ahead of time. Instead, policymaking will be characterised more by indirect approaches or "obliquity", a term popularised by the Financial Times journalist John Kay in his 2010 book.2 Instead of attempting to tackle policy challenges "head on", practitioners of governance may find it more useful to address the systems surrounding a particular policy experience and the root causes therein. Implementing obliquity will be challenging; it will call for significant lateral thinking from policymakers who may be more familiar with optimising approaches. Time-constrained decision-makers will also have to reframe their perceptions of policy, and exercise a measure of suspension of disbelief, if oblique approaches are to be allowed to take their course.

  • Efficiency-focused approaches will need to evolve to allow spare capacity for officers to deal with complex and often untidy situations.

  • Policymakers will probably have to better understand the soft, emergent, non-linear qualities of complex systems, which operate far more like biological ecosystems than mechanical systems (which are based on immutable input-output relationships). Such quasi-biological characteristics, with major consequences sometimes resulting from minor perturbations, are evident in many governance challenges today, from climate change and falling fertility rates to the impact of social media. An appreciation of these traits — what former president of the Institute of the Future Bob Johansen terms "bio-empathy"3 — will help policymakers accept that they might not be able to predict all the changes in a complex system, many of which arise from self-reinforcing feedback loops and multiple variables.
  • Perhaps most fundamental to governance of the future will be the need to constantly remake policy, reinvent ideas and re-perceive the world. It is likely to involve engaging in acts of creation and not just the maintenance or sustaining of existing systems. In many ways, this will give expression to latent "maker instincts" in all of us — our inclinations to be what Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown have called "homo farens", the doer, not just "homo sapiens", the thinker.4 Brown extends this argument to include the need for some of us to be "homo ludens", engaging in creative play geared towards innovation. This ability to participate in strategically-directed play will be key if our innate maker instincts are to operate obliquely and in a bio-empathetic way.


How do we ensure that policymakers are given the appropriate training and experience-building to meet the rigours of being playful, creative makers who employ oblique approaches and who appreciate the non-linear rhythms of complex systems? In keeping with the evolving demands of governance, the very process of training will have to employ more oblique, bio-empathetic and play-related approaches, and many training techniques will be experiments in themselves.

The exact capability set required for such governance will be dynamic and kaleidoscopic.

At the Civil Service College, some of the ongoing experiments in these directions include:

  • Sessions where training and "sense-making" functions are combined. Instead of seeing training as a one-way communication from trainers to trainees, some sessions are structured much more as "facilitated" discussions, where facilitators learn as much as course participants about the subject being explored. Such platforms for dialogue are critical sources of new ideas: the majority of our programmes involve participants from multiple agencies, whose experiences of different adjacent possibilities can provide rich new insights to their colleagues. These sessions require facilitators with both depth of experience in curating such discussions, as well as breadth of policy exposure, who can draw connections between the work of different ministries to illuminate both their commonalities and contrasts.
  • Sessions involving policy gaming and simulations. While the military has had a long tradition of "wargaming", such techniques have been less widely used in the civilian sector. Current small-scale experiments involve exploring how to craft such exercises, where participants can be immersed in a realistic, if not totally life-like, set of circumstances that hone their instincts to make decisions under dilemma-ridden conditions of complexity, incomplete information and unpredictability. These are not always comfortable exercises, but the expansion of participants' comfort zones is in fact a key aim.

Complementing these experiments is a set of fundamentals in our training philosophy that we believe will continue to be useful, even as the nature of governance evolves.

First, training must continue to be systematic and regular. As the demands on policymakers, our development programmes must grow more intentional and purposeful. We currently conduct leadership programmes for new entrants; for those taking on supervisory roles for the first time; for those first taking on Director or Head of Department positions; and for new entrants into senior Public Sector Leadership/agency head positions.

Governance of the future will involve engaging in acts of creation and not just the maintenance or sustaining of existing systems.

Second, the Whole-of-Government nature of many training programmes, particularly those geared towards future leaders, will be key. The value of such interactions across agencies is both analytical, in inculcating understanding among future leaders of how government operates as a system, not just discrete silos; as well as in the formation of social capital, through networks and bonds of trust developed over the various leadership programmes, which can last from two to nine weeks.

Third, we continue to adopt a "practitioner-based" teaching/facilitation model, where more senior officers return to the College to share experiences and insights with their junior colleagues. Some invited practitioners come from the private, non-profit and academic sectors, who provide useful non-government perspectives on the effects of current public policies. In a changing world, each sharing could legitimately encompass good practices as well as learning points from policies that did not pan out as anticipated. Both cases offer useful ways of nurturing a deep awareness of the Public Service's shared history, which can inform the thought processes of future generations of public officers as they navigate evolving trends in governance.


Aaron Maniam is Director of the Institute of Policy Development at the Civil Service College. The Institute is responsible for organising leadership training for public sector leaders at various stages of their careers. He is concurrently Associate Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Futures in the Prime Minister's Office, where he works with a team analysing issues with long-term implications for Singapore's future. He began his career in public service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own.


  1. Giddens, Anthony, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives (London: Routledge, 1999)
  2. Kay, John, Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2011)
  3. Johansen, Bob, Leaders Make the Future (San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009). Bio-empathy is on Johansen's list of ten leadership qualities for a "VUCA" world (one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).
  4. Thomas, Douglas, and Brown, John Seely, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (2011)

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