Public Governance: Challenges in a Changing Landscape

Policymaking should involve public perspectives and citizen efforts while staying focused on the long term, argues Singapore's Head of Civil Service.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011

Many will agree with me that 2011 has been anything but business as usual in Singapore. After our two elections this year, it is clear that we have a public that is more vocal and expect a more engaged and responsive relationship with the Government. Many public officers are wondering how the tone and style of governance might change, and what the way ahead might be for policymaking and service delivery.

In his 2011 National Day Rally, the Prime Minister (PM) noted that Singapore must remain exceptional as a country. At the same time, as a small country with an open economy, Singapore continues to face an increasingly challenging global operating environment, which conscribes the number and range of policy options available to us. What we do know is that our Public Service must constantly evolve and adapt so as to rise to meet the key challenges in this changing landscape.


In various ways, our Public Service has indeed been exceptional. Our outstanding track record is built on strong fundamentals in policy formulation and a continuous investment in people. We have the ability and space to think long-term, and to do what is right rather than what is popular. We also make sure we bring in and retain good people in the Public Service, and we ensure that we invest resources in developing them.

If there is one word that people commonly use to describe the Singapore Public Service, it is "efficient". We deliver public value through high quality service, and have organised our policies, processes and delivery based on concepts of efficiency and resource optimisation. But this "efficiency" now needs to be coupled with a softer touch.

To ensure that the Public Service can continue to meet the aspirations of our people and to deliver public value at a higher level, there are three areas to focus on:

The first is policymaking with more heart, the second is public engagement, and the third is to continue to prepare for the future. These are not totally new concepts to us, and we have had some successes in these areas. However, they are areas to which we can pay more attention and in which we can do better.


There is room for us to formulate and implement policies with more heart, or more from the citizen's perspective, rather than from the perspective of the implementing agency.

The essence of a good Public Service is that it is trustworthy and there is consistency and transparency in implementation. Rules are implemented without fear or favour. However, a "one size fits all" approach, while impartial and fair, may unwittingly convey rigidity and a lack of care, if applied inflexibly and without regard to the genuine needs and circumstances of individuals.

There is room for us to formulate and implement policies more from the citizen’s perspective, rather than from the perspective of the implementing agency

Instead, we need to start adopting a more "user-centric" approach, and we can begin by putting ourselves in the shoes of the citizen and customer. While we have some way to go, we have seen some interesting successes in terms of service experience when our agencies try to see things from citizens and customers' points of view.

The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and its partners on the ground — the Community Development Councils (CDCs) and Family Services Centres (FSCs) — operate in a complex network with many players, in alignment with Singapore's "Many Helping Hands" philosophy of social assistance. Increasingly, they are encountering more chronic and complicated cases of families who face multifaceted issues, in which financial aid alone is insufficient. In response, MCYS and its partners are reviewing how social assistance could be delivered in a more holistic and user-centric manner. They walked through the customer journey, and conducted ethnographic interviews with their customers to gain in-depth insights into the experience and emotions of end-users. These insights would be used to prototype ideas for MCYS and its partners.

One learning point from the MCYS project is that we need to overcome our own cognitive biases in policy formulation and implementation. Listening to the stories of our citizens can help to ameliorate such biases, and enrich the range of perspectives from which we eventually craft our policies.


In his National Day Rally, PM said that he was very encouraged that Singaporeans are becoming more engaged, going beyond simply providing their views. Instead, many are now coming forward to work with one another and the Government on projects that matter to them and serve a greater national good.

As the Public Service, we should think about how to engage the public more. In the long term, this will prove beneficial for Singapore for several reasons.

We need to overcome our own cognitive biases in policy formulation and implementation.

First, the Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas. The challenges we face as a nation are becoming more complex and will require different perspectives and approaches. Some of these can come from the public.

Second, trade-offs become sharper and harder to make as we approach the frontiers and boundaries of policymaking. Up till today, the Government has typically decided how to make these trade-offs on behalf of citizens. By involving citizens in co-creating solutions to some problems, the public could come to better understand the considerations that the Government has to bear in mind, and appreciate why certain trade-offs must be made.

Third, engagement deepens citizens' stake in the country and in their fellow countrymen's well-being. It gives citizens the opportunity to "own" policies that affect their lives on a daily basis.


More and better public engagement does not mean that all issues should be put up for grabs, and there are issues about engagement that require further reflection. First, engagement must be done with sincerity. We have a sophisticated public, one that will pick up very quickly if we are just paying lip service to an engagement exercise.

More and better public engagement does not mean that all issues should be put up for grabs.

Second, the appropriate mode of engagement is contextual. Engagement can be upstream at the policy design stage, or downstream at the implementation stage. In some cases, the public wants to be involved upstream to be co-creators of the policy. In other areas, we will not have the luxury of time to undertake too much engagement, for example, when there is a crisis.

Third, engagement requires public officers to have an acute sense of citizen sentiments. Not all public officers will be comfortable with or ready for public engagement, and we will need to invest in building up these skills and capabilities.


In this new operating environment where change is a constant, it is important that we continue to think about and anticipate the future. Anticipating and preparing for emerging risks and opportunities that stem from both global forces and local trends is important, even as we tackle current challenges.

Policy options need to be developed in advance, so that we can move decisively and effectively when we need to. If we want to continue to be exceptional, we must not neglect this important role or we will always be chasing our own tails and be forced into adopting sub-optimal policy options.

Many civil services around the world envy us for having the capabilities and the space to plan ahead. This is not something that we built up overnight, and is not something we should take for granted.


As the Public Service, we should take pride in the fact that we have done well and have been a key institution behind the success of Singapore.

Going forward, the Public Service must continue anticipating and preparing for the future. We also need to formulate and implement policies with greater empathy and heart, as well as engage the public sincerely. An exceptional Singapore is our common goal, and the journey ahead is one that we must embark on together with our people.


Peter Ong is the Head of Singapore's Civil Service and concurrently Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Finance and Permanent Secretary (Special Duties) at the Prime Minister's Office. This article is an adaptation of a speech delivered at the Public Service Staff Conference 2011.

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