Ownership, Opportunity and Outcomes: Interview with Laurence Lien

The community sector can become more confident in working with others to solve collective problems — but it will take practice, patience and leadership.

On the Evolving Relationship between Government and the Non-Profit Sector

The Government has been talking about the community doing more for itself, but the response has been mixed. I once gave a talk at the National University of Singapore where I argued that we cannot rely on the Government to solve all our problems and that the community should just step forward and do more. When it was reported, public comments online were mostly negative. The arguments were familiar: One, that the Government caused all these problems, so they should solve it instead of passing the buck and two, that public officials are already paid a lot to solve these issues.

This shows how much work there is to be done to get us to the right equilibrium; how much distrust there can be of the Government’s intentions. There is some perception that the Government wants to disavow its shortcomings, or to pass on the risk or burden of care. At the same time, civil society and the non-profit sector are also not adequately equipped to step up to the plate overnight, because there has been a long history of dependency on government support.

There are also questions around the relationship between the non-profit sector and the public sector in terms of the model of contracting, sub-contracting and so on. When the Government says it wants the community to do more, what do we mean by that? What does co-creation mean in actual terms? Both sides have to be clear about the details and how to actually go about it. Are we really going to devolve responsibility, accountability and ownership to the non-profit sector and to citizens, or does “Many Helping Hands” mean that you only want others to lend their help and resources? On the ground, people do see it that way — that the Government just shows up and tells them what to do. This should not be the way forward.

If people actually have to work together on a common solution, they can start to learn to be responsible with power.

Having worked in the Government, we know the fear is what happens when you let go. People have different and sometimes narrow interests; they may not see the common good or the bigger issues. So quite often the Government is fixated on narrowing the risks. But if we don’t start letting go and are always seeking to prevent the negative from happening, we will also not allow the good to happen, and the good could far outweigh the bad. The alternative would be continued dependency, which is unsustainable. It also breeds an entitlement mentality which the public sector already has a tough time dealing with. The public can already be very demanding of public service standards. Taxpayers have a tendency to treat their government as vendors — there isn’t a sense of co-ownership, which is what we want to nurture.

How can we break out of these habits? There has to be a slow process of genuine empowerment, and of gradually building up the capabilities of citizens and organisations in the non-profit sector. There also has to be experimentation, with both successes and failures along the way, as a way to gain confidence on what we can or cannot do. As citizens, we can derive satisfaction out of simply participating and being part of the solution rather than being on the sidelines.

A lot of the language coming out of the public sector has to do with “consulting” the public. Consultation doesn’t have anything to do with empowerment because the decisions are still taken by the authorities. Indeed, you may feel less empowered after being asked what you want and realising you cannot do anything about it! Ironically, this could make people even more narrowly self- interested.

Right now all the relevant relationships are vertical and hierarchical; we need to build horizontally. Otherwise, people are not engaging one another nor seeing each other’s issues and perspectives. They can only talk about their own priorities. I strongly feel that people can be taught to make decisions aligned with the common good and not just their own narrow interests.

If people actually have to work together on a common solution, they can start to learn to be responsible with power. They realise they need to sit down and work things out with others. This is how Management Corporations in private estates do it — by and large, there is a deliberative process to decide what to do within the estate, and they solve their own problems without having to complain to the authorities. But in HDB neighbourhoods, the town councils are seen as responsible for taking care of everything. I have been a big proponent of empowering grassroots organisations to make decisions on the ground — let them practise on smaller issues and progressively learn to tackle bigger ones. People have to build confidence through doing, not just through talking. Then they will also appreciate the work of the authorities more, when they realise it is not easy to negotiate diverse interests.

On Striking a Balance Between Government Intervention, Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy

What is the ideal role for government? To do as little as possible: if something can be done by the community or by the individual or their families and it is appropriate, devolve the work. The state comes in as the last resort. While best practices ought to be industry-driven, the state still has a role as regulator. It can maintain minimum standards and enforce the rules.

At this stage of our development, the Government still has a role in being an advocate and capacity builder, particularly in some sectors where the civic organisations are still weak and look to the Government for answers. You cannot simply withdraw all of a sudden, especially in a small country with few alternatives. Most of our non-profit institutions, apart from a tiny number in specific niches, are far from the situation in say the United States, where their counterparts can refuse to take a cent from the state because they value their independence. In Singapore, they have to work closely with the Government if they want to take care of people’s welfare — because in the end, it is the Government with the policy levers and the substantial financial resources.

However big philanthropy can grow, it will not be on the scale that governments can muster, because governments can collect tax revenue. The total tax deductible donations to Institutions of Public Character in 2014 was only one-sixtieth of the total government budget in FY2014. State resources are still needed to fund many programmes, especially in areas where there is market failure and public interest that no one else is providing for. But the non-profit sector can be where innovation and experimentation take place. The diversity of models can reveal ways to solve different problems.

Current services are mostly geared towards lower income groups, but there are in fact many areas where solutions for the middle class are needed. For example, 90% of beds in nursing homes run by established volunteer welfare organisations are for subsidised cases; only 10% of beds are for fee paying clients, and the queues can be very long. The social sector needs to provide much better services for growing societal needs across the entire range of stakeholders in the population, and we are not seeing enough of that.

People are not aware of where the potential is. Many social entrepreneurs develop products and services that don’t really solve real problems either here or in surrounding countries. We don’t need another app, cafe or gift shop. Instead, we need a broader strategic conversation, which involves not just the Ministries with the benefit of lots of research, data and perspective, but also the people who are going to be developing solutions. We need to mobilise entrepreneurs to take on issues and understand them deeply. Right now, many social entrepreneurs that I have met have hardly engaged their target beneficiaries. They build the product first before even understanding the problem and the people involved. Furthermore, it is not just about big challenges — there are so many small- and mid-sized problems that need to be solved. Indeed, many big changes often build on small innovations along the way.

Government agencies should look into a more outcome-driven model for funding. You determine the results you want, but don’t prescribe the way to get there, as long as the outcomes are achieved at the end of the day. It is very rare for our agencies to do this. But you also need more enlightened firms and organisations on the supply side, because it is often easier to be funded based on very specific processes and outputs rather than outcomes, which may not always be entirely within one’s control. As a training body, you can deliver a set of courses and measure the number of people who attend your courses, but how do you know if you have changed behaviours afterwards? It’s risky if you are only going to get paid if people apply what they learn. But there may be some who can make such a model work, and that is in fact what you want.

What might co-creation look like as we develop? It would feature a government that readily shares data and research with the public — and not just data, but also sharing the issues and the responsibility for the issues, rather than being solely responsible for taking care of the problems. But now there is a tendency to be sensitive about data, even with statistics that are directly relevant to the organisations doing the work, for fear that it may make the public agency look bad. You have to treat civil society organisations as equal partners if you are co-creating. It has to cut both ways: the non-profit sector must also put what they have on the table and be transparent about their agenda and information. You also have to be a bit open to different ways of doing things, which may not be in the DNA of civil servants today. There may also be anxiety about consistency and fairness — that public agencies cannot be seen to have a special relationship with just a few players.

There is sometimes a feeling that there’s almost contempt for agencies on the ground, that they cannot see the big picture, and are not saying what the public sector does not already know. But people who work the ground think about national interests all the time, except they may have a different perspective and different ideas on what the best way forward might be. You have to give them credit.

On Leadership and Public Engagement

Leadership is still needed to convene people to face up to a problem and work at it. We often define a leader as being able to mobilise followers. If you know what a problem is, and know what the solution is, then people follow you for your expertise. But in many contexts, this is inadequate, because the problems we face in the social sector are what Dean Williams and Ronald Heifetz would call adaptive challenges, not technical ones. People are quite often part of the problem themselves, which means they also have to be part of the solution. So a leader needs to get people to realise how they are contributing to the issue, and how things have to change.

Instead of sweeping things under the rug, adaptive leadership means seeing opportunities to mobilise people to reflect and learn without seeking blame. It is also about weaning people from dependency on any one leader or authority who comes in and does everything for everyone. Nor do you merely aggregate diverse views and then determine the final outcome. Instead, you allow people to engage one another so that, with more information and better awareness, their views can mature and develop. Leadership means having the confidence to allow some of the tensions to bubble up, rather than simply reduce the pressure and pretend everything is well. Such tensions can be important. Sometimes it is only under pressure that creative work can happen. But being so used to order and control, our authorities tend to step in at the slightest discomfort to draw the line.

People are quite often part of the problem themselves, which means they also have to be part of the solution. So a leader needs to get people to realise how they are contributing ot the issue, and how things have to change.

There will always be unconstructive comments and brickbats — there are those who are looking for any excuse to pull you down and they are not going to go away. Right now, we are still unused to this state of affairs; we get so distracted by the noise that we cannot focus on what is really going on. But the best policy is to be thick-skinned and to concentrate on those who are willing to engage — to show that it is possible to work together productively.



Laurence Lien is Co-Founder and CEO of the Asia Philanthropy Circle, a new non-profit initiative that convenes Asian philanthropists to learn, collaborate and catalyse new social interventions. He is also the Chairman of Lien Foundation and the Community Foundation of Singapore, Vice-President of the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership, and Board Member of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University. Laurence was the CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre in Singapore from 2008-2014, when he founded the Community Foundation of Singapore. He was a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore from 2012 to 2014.

This interview was conducted on 10 January 2014 by CSC Senior Researcher Soh Tze Min, CSC Researcher Cheryl Wu and ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang as part of ongoing research and development of social sector leadership.

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