Putting the Public Back in Public Service

In this edition of the ETHOS Roundtable, participants of the 9th Leaders in Governance Programme discuss the challenges of technology, public trust, and the need to nurture strong ties between government and citizens.


Hon Christine //Hoebes, Deputy Minister, Office of the Prime Minister, Namibia

Mr Aung Naing Oo, Director General, Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA), Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, Myanmar

Ms Shazainah Shariffuddin, Permanent Secretary (International), Prime Minister’s Office, Brunei Darussalam


Hoebes: In our context, I see the main challenges as technological advancement and skills development. Technology will transform how we engage with citizens; how we think and act; how we draft or craft our policies. In the long run, technology will replace bureaucracy. The public sector, including civil servants and the political leadership, must keep up with a rapid pace of change.

In my country, we have developed a series of interventions in this direction. We have introduced e-banking in the private sector; and in the government sector, we have a whole range of online services we call e-governance. We have digitised our national documents. We have also initiated e-recruitment: you apply online, come in for an interview, and are informed of the outcome in two to three days.

Aung Naing Oo: For a relatively small economy like Myanmar, it is a huge challenge to catch up with the development of technology: the government is always lagging behind the private sector. Nevertheless, we are looking into initiatives such as an online registry for companies, mobile banking and so on. One of our key hurdles is financing for these developments. Another is the skills gap: younger members of the public are quite savvy with technology, but most of the officials in government are aged 40 and above. In terms of technology and expertise, the public sector is limited by the talent available to it, which in turn is limited by what salaries we can offer. For the digitally savvy, the private sector is able to pay much better and is more attractive. Transboundary concerns, regional and ethnic differences, as well as unemployment, remain pressing issues, all of which make demands on scarce government resources.

In the long run, technology will replace bureaucracy.

Shazainah: As a small population, Brunei is also constrained by our limited human resources. For us, the challenges have to do with the global environment we find ourselves in. Globalisation and technology have brought changes to the regional and international landscape, with significant political, economic and social impact on people’s lives. At the same time, these trends have also led to significant increases in opportunity, exposure, and people’s expectations are changing. Of course, governments everywhere have to accommodate and adapt to these changes. The public sector has to ensure that people are continually trained and updated to keep pace with the appropriate skills they will need. It comes down to education.


Aung Naing Oo: If we look at our domestic concerns, the number one issue is that most of the citizens in the country don’t know what the government’s vision is. Therefore, consultation and education will indeed be important. Whatever the government wants to do, it should consult and listen to the public first, and also try to explain what it plans to do in future, as well as what the costs and benefits are. Many of the problems in the past have to do with an inability to get the vision out to the public in a way they can understand, or to convince the public on what we plan to do.

Shazainah: It is a question of reaching out to people. But how do you reach out? You need to get a real sense of people’s concerns; where they are coming from. There is very often a gap between the people in public service and the people in a community: between the governors and the governed. So you have to build bridges, and make sure these connections are strong, so you can understand the root causes of people’s concerns and the best way to address them as well as you can.

When you send a middleman, you do not know if the message gets transmitted the way you would like. There is no running away from the human touch.

Hoebes: You have to rally people around a common purpose, a common vision. In Namibia, we have a national government but also sub-national, regional and local government authorities, all interlinked. When a new policy comes out, we make sure that everybody is informed. Fortunately, with a very small population of 2.3 million, we have channels through which information can be transmitted from person to person. I’ve seen our Minister of Education, going around the country, having public meetings and town hall meetings to explain the new policy. We do this consistently. When we introduced our New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework, there was public resistance, so we went back to the people, down to individuals at village level. It took our officials at least three months to contact everyone and explain in detail what the new framework means, seeking buy-in. Of course, resistance remained, but there was very much more support after that.

This sort of nationwide consultation is a new approach. In the past, we would gather senior officials and councilors and get them to spread the message. But when you send a middleman, you do not know if the message gets transmitted the way you would like. The middlemen may not all understand the message fully, or may not feel an obligation to deliver it in a way that is consistent with the message. There may be conflicts of interest and so on. So now we do it ourselves directly. There is no running away from the human touch.


Shazainah: Trust is obviously important: because you need to get the public on board and have their support for the policies you are going to introduce and implement. And if you find that things are not going the way they are supposed to go, the public sector must respond and adjust in a timely matter. At the same time, it’s also about striking a balance.

Hoebes: There’s an interesting relationship between trust and competence. In 2014, our president won the elections with 87% of the vote; the ruling party received 82% of the vote. These are huge margins, representing a great amount of trust that citizens have placed in both the president and the party. When the president was sworn in, he had to put together his cabinet. We have a party list system, so there were those on the list we were sure would have an office appointment. But he asked for their CVs. So potential office-holders had to submit their credentials and based on their abilities and experiences were appointed to specific portfolios in which they had expertise. Why? Because our party had been given an extraordinary public mandate, we were also expected to deliver extraordinary performance. We had to deliver. Every day, we are looking to better the lives of our people. If you are given this level of trust, you have to be competent to live up to it.

Once you lose the public’s trust, it is hard for you to act even when you’re doing to do what’s right.

Aung Naing Oo: For me, trust is the most important element in government. In the late 1980s, there were strikes across my country: there very little trust in the socialist government, because socialism led to poverty, and there was a gap between the leadership and the general public, leading to great dissatisfaction. After the military coup in 1988, we had 23 years under a military regime. Despite the military government’s attempts to further the development of the country, corruption and nepotism meant that they too lost the people’s trust. By the time President Thein Sein’s administration took office, the people had formed the assumption — because he was also a general — that he was not looking out for the people, even though he was a forward-looking leader who did many good things for the country. The government’s image had already been damaged by past experiences, so the opposition won an electoral landslide in 2011. Once you lose the public’s trust, it is hard for you to act even when you’re going to do what’s right.

The onus is on government to come up with innovative ideas to reach out to young people and to instill the values that society will need to progress in tomorrow’s world.


Hoebes: One advantage we have, not just in Namibia but also in Africa, is that we have a youthful population, unlike many parts of the world which are aging. This is a resource that should be harnessed. This means giving them education and training, bringing them on board with current realities, current threats and opportunities. The youth of today have a very different values system from what we grew up with. As the previous generation, it is really up to us to instil in them the values we stand for, and which will see them into the future. We have launched a nationhood campaign called ‘My Namibia My Pride’ to do just that: connect young people with their language, culture, roots and values. It is something that we have to work consciously at.

Aung Naing Oo: We do have a lot of initiatives, not just in terms of a comprehensive education system but also non-academic activities. The younger generation in Myanmar spends a lot of time playing video games, for example. But what we are trying to do is to attract them to join grassroot programs, visit museums to learn our history, and take part in society. This requires a lot of resources and effort, as well as close cooperation between schools, parents, young people, and other institutions in society. It’s easier said than done.

Shazainah: One basic approach is to really invest in reaching out to youth, trying to understand where they are coming from and to establish common ground with them, and at the same time managing their expectations. It will not be easy to go back to the values of the past. But the onus is on government to come up with innovative ideas to reach out to young people and to instil the values that we want to see, that society will need to progress in tomorrow’s world.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang in September 2016 with a group of participants in the 9th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP). Organised annually by the Civil Service College, the LGP draws from Singapore’s development experience to offer practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the seven-day programme, participants interact with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.

Back to Ethos homepage