Public Engagement: The Gap between Rhetoric and Practice

Deeply ingrained habits and structures may have to be shed before a more productive relationship can develop between the state and the public.

The language of public engagement is no longer foreign in Singapore’s Public Service. Many senior civil servants speak it and do so quite eloquently.

But speaking about public engagement is, of course, quite a different thing from carrying out public engagement. And this is where there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and practice in Singapore. For instance, government officials recently met selectively with concerned members of the public to discuss a controversial decision to build a road through a historically significant graveyard. When criticised for not taking the public’s views seriously, the Government explained that the meeting was never meant to be a “consultation”.1 So it is important to ask why such a gap exists and why it might be difficult to close it, assuming of course that closing it is what we want to do.

Firstly, the gap may exist for ideological reasons. Highfalutin descriptions of one’s practice can be a nice way to obscure a rather more prosaic reality. Bureaucracy, after all, remains a necessary institution to tame and harness the chaotic energies of society and to rationalise and limit social variety as a means of establishing some measure of predictability and stability in a complex world. To re-assert control over rising democratic pressures while maintaining its legitimacy to do so, the Public Service may initiate public engagement exercises that are, in reality, forms of non-participation or tokenism at best. The bottom half of the citizen participation ladder, Sherry Arnstein famously argued, consists of efforts to manipulate, correct, inform, consult and placate citizens, a far cry from the citizen power that comes from partnerships, delegated power and citizen control.2 In this sense, public engagement platitudes serve to disguise a basic reality that is resistant to change and power-sharing.

Secondly, the gap may exist simply because of real practical challenges that attend to even the most genuine desire to engage the public. Here the gap is really between what public service leaders (and preferred public management gurus) may say their organisation should be and what the organisation at the rank-and-file level is truly capable of being. It could take a long time before the practice catches up with the ideals expressed in the leaders’ idealistic and sometimes even “revolutionary” rhetoric. Mid-level and frontline officers, who are confronted by a different set of risks and rewards in their daily challenges, are likely to be more sensitive to the practical limitations in the day-to-day choices that they make. Genuine public engagement is difficult to account for. The risks of failure, traditionally conceived, are high. And the work that it entails is much more complicated, troublesome, and slow in achieving results (which an officer needs to show at the end of each reporting year). What will all of this contribute to a promising officer’s career prospects? Celebratory talk at the elite levels of the Civil Service about inclusiveness could trivialise real concerns that anxious mid-level bureaucrats have about being able to reconcile the new-fangled rhetoric with traditional goals of efficiency, consistency and results in the practice of policymaking.

The gap between rhetoric and practice may exist because of deeply entrenched public sector mindsets rooted in Singapore’s political culture.

To progress towards genuine public engagement, it is important at the very start to acknowledge and work through its ideological and practical obstacles. This, I suggest, requires critical understanding of a third factor: the gap between rhetoric and practice may exist because of deeply entrenched public sector mindsets rooted in Singapore’s political culture, unique historical development, and the public mythologies that have nourished (or perhaps impoverished) our understanding of them.

Prospects for Public Engagement

As a neo-liberal global city, Singapore has been witnessing rising popular pressure. Politics has come to the fore again, prompting the policy establishment to pay greater heed to the demands of a new and more variegated citizenry, with political leaders now more sensitive to the real prospect of losing elections. At the same time, the cultural, ideological, practical and institutional legacies of the earlier survivalist and development stages continue to be a source of tension in the evolution of Singapore’s political culture. By no means has this been a simple and linear story of liberalisation.

However, are these recent developments enough to shift the deeply entrenched public sector mindsets that have been formed out of historically shaped ways of thinking and reasoning? Will a new generation of leaders in the public sector, whose horizons of experience may differ from the survivalist and developmental preoccupations of a previous generation, lead to fresh opportunities for new terms of engagement?

I have argued elsewhere that pragmatism as a public service value in Singapore has over the decades lost its flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness. Hardened in turn by the survivalist, then developmental, and now even neo-liberal global-city stages, Singapore-style pragmatism has, ironically, become ideological.3 It is now a label that reinforces and then obscures certain policymaking rigidities and fundamentalisms. Some of these rigidities — such as risk-aversion, hyperbolic reasoning, obsession with economic growth, elitism, and scepticism towards the public — have made it difficult to close the gap between the rhetoric and practice of public engagement.

Although some officers speak grandly about its worth, others still find it difficult to envision a practice of public engagement beyond simply a public relations exercise; or a means of appeasing increasingly emboldened people who are essentially unreasonable and uncivil; or a necessary evil that can lead to the worst excesses of populism if not managed with care. The elitist proclivities of the public sector, reinforced by top-level salaries that are comparable to the private sector, are unlikely to incentivise real public engagement, since they reinforce the sense that public sector leaders, possessing superior intellect, knowledge and insight, must defend the public interest against irrational and dangerous mass populism. The public, according to this mindset, needs to be educated to think correctly rather than present themselves as equal participants in policy formulation and implementation.

So how can we go beyond rhetoric and improve our political culture?

A deep cultural change is necessary to disencumber our minds of these rigidities. We need to return to the original spirit of pragmatism that made Singapore so successful in the first place. Neo Boon Siong has, for instance, argued for “dynamic governance” that involves “thinking ahead, thinking again, and thinking across”.4 But culture is notoriously challenging to transform quickly.

We need to return to the original spirit of pragmatism that made Singapore so successful in the first place.

There must also be a congruous incentive structure in place — designed not only to reward officers who take public engagement seriously and can demonstrate genuine progress in their efforts, but also to signal strongly its importance, in ways that go beyond organisational rhetoric. We could commission studies that aim to identify appropriate indicators of successful engagement in the Singapore context, and develop tools for measuring them sensitively. We can adapt for our purposes the numerous models available around the world for evaluating public engagement. Furthermore, there needs to be adequate training for public officers, and a repertoire of effective engagement strategies that they can adopt, so that they will have the confidence and competence necessary to engage effectively. There are many case studies of successful and failed public engagement exercises from around the world that can provide concrete examples and inspiration.

With holistic attempts to encourage public engagement through cultural management, incentive structures and capability building, we can begin to redesign our public administration in ways that can revitalise a sceptical public and a distrustful strong state — forging a new, complex, perhaps at times open-ended, and yet productive relationship based on an expanded mode of public rationality. By necessity, it will be a slow process, with mistakes and failures along the way: impatience for results and intolerance of failure are two habits that will have to be unlearnt.

The Evolution of Singapore’s Political Culture

Singapore’s history, and how that history has been understood, shapes the limitations and prospects of public policy as a discipline and as a practice, and has influenced the evolution of Singapore’s political culture as a whole.

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Kenneth Paul Tan is Associate Professor and Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (www.lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/Faculty_Kenneth_Paul_Tan.aspx). He can be contacted at kennethpaultan@nus.edu.sg.


  1. Goh, Chin Lian, and Sim, Royston, “Bukit Brown meeting ‘not a consultation’: Tan Chuan-Jin”, The Straits Times, March 21, 2012.
  2. Arnstein, Sherry, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 1969).
  3. Tan, Kenneth Paul, “The Ideology of Pragmatism in Singapore: Neoliberal Globalization and Political Authoritarianism”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 42, No. 1 (2012).
  4. Neo, Boon Siong, Dynamic Governance: Embedding Culture, Capabilities and Change in Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific, 2007).

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