Public Sector Transformation — Six Small Ways to Make a Big Impact

The Singapore Public Service can ready itself for a more challenging environment with more thoughtful communication, collaboration and creative use of resources.

So we have heard the Prime Minister urge the public sector to be more responsive to the needs of the citizenry.1 The Government has to operate as one, be fully committed to improving the lives of the people, and its policies must keep pace with the changing aspirations and needs of Singaporeans. At the same time, it must build trust and uphold the highest standards of integrity. This is quite a tall but necessary order indeed.

The big question is: where do we begin? Self-realisation would be a good place to start. It is a different world we live in today: this includes Singapore. The far-sighted policies of our founding generation of leaders have served us well by most measures, but this is not to say they will meet the needs of future generations. As we plan ahead for the next 20 or 30 years, it is clear Singaporeans want a bigger say in the policies that will affect their lives, from roads, housing and healthcare to education, and they are not afraid to voice their views.

The public sector will have to adapt to these changing circumstances. Of course, adaptation doesn’t mean compromising on the basics. The Government still has a duty to safeguard the interests of the state, uphold the interests of the community, and balance the competing demands on our scarce resources. But we have more interest groups to manage and issues are now more easily amplified through the new social media.

It is in this context that public sector transformation has been in the news lately. Many public servants must be daunted by the prospect of having to embrace the impending changes, much less initiate them. Anticipating this, the Public Service Division and the Civil Service College have been repositioning themselves to help the public sector cope with these changes by facilitating civil service-wide dialogue, fostering inter-agency collaboration and investing in capacity building. Senior public sector leaders have also stepped in to guide the change effort by identifying areas within their organisations, as well as across agencies, that can be improved in order to deliver better citizen-centric services. This is a good start.

Six Ways to Spark Change

What can the rest of the civil service do? We should certainly not wait for change to come. Each and every public officer can and should be a powerful agent of change. From the Permanent Secretary and Chief Executive down to the counter staff and ground officers, there is much we can do to facilitate the overall effort. And there is no need to pay an arm and a leg to a consultant to help you do this. Here are six ways to kick it off:

  1. Leaders must set the right tone, starting from the top — but not only from the top. Any line manager or supervisor is in a powerful position to bring about change in his or her department or unit. Revisit assumptions from time to time. Policies should not be cast in stone but reflect changing realities. Create a positive and enabling environment where ideas and suggestions are welcomed. Encourage ground-up feedback as those closest to the issues are usually the most well-informed yet paradoxically, feel powerless to change things.

  2. Create platforms for officers to share their challenges — and forge a common vision and narrative for change. Officers should meet and interact regularly with one another and arrive at a consensual world view, particularly in times of uncertainty and complexity. This is especially important in large organisations where many officers may not even have met their fellow colleagues. A shared sense of purpose is absolutely critical for any major change effort. Develop a compelling narrative that is relevant to your agency: one that galvanises everyone’s efforts and fires up the imagination.

  3. Allow for “ideas test-bedding” — by encouraging officers to create problem solving teams to tackle the challenges they face, and to identify problem areas or pain points that should be addressed. Sometimes the solution may be simple, such as simplifying forms by removing unnecessary fields, cutting down on the red tape for approvals or redesigning processes around people as human beings, rather than as digits. At other times, a more fundamental policy review may be called for, which will require further deliberations with the Ministry HQ. Start with the quick wins, recognise every small effort, and you’ll be surprised how quickly others in the organisation will catch on.

  4. Promote a greater sense of empathy, both within and without the organisation — and put yourself in the shoes of your employee or member of public. This can be done in a great number of ways. Start with having empathy within the organisation. What this means is that leaders and supervisors should pay attention to their staff’s needs if they expect their officers to project similar care for the public. At the same time, those working in front line agencies should walk the ground regularly, and meet up with the grassroots leaders and the local community to garner feedback and suggestions.

  5. Be more deliberate about public engagement, not as an afterthought but as an integral part of the policy formulation and review process. Engage both in good times and bad — not only when there is a need to. Engage regularly as a way to communicate policy intent, shifts and trade-offs and to build a long-term relationship based on mutual trust, respect and authenticity. Engagement can take various forms, from simple dialogue sessions to organising activities that provide a more relaxed and conducive environment for dialogue. If we are prepared to look, we might be surprised how many capable, well-meaning Singaporeans — from individuals to businesses and organisations — are prepared to work with us on national endeavours.

  6. Make the most of the data within your organisation. Public agencies collect data, lots of it. Unfortunately, much of this data is not used to its full potential. Much has been said of data analytics: there are helpful tools to collate, analyse and make sense of data. But we need not always rely on such elaborate tools to be effective. Customer feedback, which is basic data that many public service agencies already have, combined with the intuition of your front-line employees, is a good place to start mining for information. What works or does not work usually provides useful clues to improving service quality more broadly. Asking the right questions, drilling deeper into the data, and assigning good people to the front desks, where interaction with the public actually occurs, can inspire vast improvements in service delivery.

A Library By the People, For the People: Building a Long-Term Relationship Based on Engagement and Trust

Customer-centric experience and community engagement are not new to the National Library Board (NLB), which has been reinventing the concept of public libraries in Singapore for over a decade. One of the ways in which it has done so is by rethinking the relationship between the library as an institution and the people it serves. In recent years, NLB has increasingly empowered customers, partners and volunteers to lead, initiate, develop and manage libraries on their own. library@chinatown is its latest experiment.

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Doing More With Less — Creating Bandwidth for Success

Finding sufficient bandwidth for management and line managers is a common challenge faced by organisations contemplating change. Indeed, this poses a far greater challenge than the lack of resources. Resources can always be provided, but an organisation that is inadequately prepared or poorly structured to implement change efforts can do more harm with additional resources allocated to it. Precious time, energy and resources can be wasted, and widespread scepticism could undermine the larger civil service-wide change effort. For this effort to succeed, some slack and spare capacity should be given to agencies to strengthen their organisational capabilities.

Sustaining these efforts will require a culture of continuous improvement. This is the hardest part of the change effort. It is often not possible to change large organisations overnight — unless of course, they face an existential threat, by which time its fate may already be sealed. Change can be just as effective in smaller doses when done in a way that is sustained and scalable. Some departments, especially those in the forefront of change efforts, can lead the way by test-piloting new concepts or approaches and replicating the successes across the rest of the organisation.

Singapore stands at an important crossroads in its development. Will we be a run-of-the-mill country, or continue to be exceptional? This is not mere rhetoric. Our success has hinged as much on exceptional leadership as on an exceptional civil service that has stayed true to the nation’s interests and secured the public’s trust. The public sector transformation effort is too important to be left to chance. It is also too important to be left to the few who oversee the civil service. It has to be everyone’s job. It is up to us — people like you and me — to believe that we can make a difference, and to make change happen today.


Andrew Tan is Chief Executive, Maritime and Port Authority, Singapore. He has served previously as Chief Executive of the National Environment Agency, as well as Deputy Secretary in the Ministries of Transport and Foreign Affairs. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government and a First Class Honours degree in History from King’s College, University of London. This article was written during his Fellowship at the Civil Service College, Singapore and the views expressed herein are his own.


  1. Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Public Service Leadership Advance on 30 September 2013, http://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/speechesninterviews/primeminister/2013/September/speech-by-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong-at-the-public-service-l.html

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