Redefining Engagement: Lessons for the Public Service from Our Singapore Conversation

Through collective learning-by-doing and investment in strong relationships, Our Singapore Conversation has pioneered new possibilities for public engagement and governance.

Redefining Engagement: Lessons for the Public Service from Our Singapore Conversation

Date Posted

15 Jun 2014


Issue 13, 14 May 2014

A Shared, Learning Experience Outside Our Comfort Zones

As an approach to national-level engagement, Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) was designed1 to be more inclusive, authentic and to strengthen trust — markedly different from past national consultative engagements such as Singapore 212 and Remaking Singapore.3 OSC, in engaging with the complexities of choice and aspirations of a more diverse and mature society, was a learning journey for both the Government and Singaporeans. By engaging groups from the public service, political leadership and wider community in dialogue on Singapore’s future,4 OSC served as a shared experience that took participants out of their comfort zones in a way that — from an organisational development perspective — is conducive to bringing about transformative learning.

For the Public Service, the key learning insights from the OSC experience may be summarised through four broad themes: Context, Connection, Capacity, and Capability.


Background on Our Singapore Conversation

What was OSC?

Our Singapore Conversation, or OSC,1 was initiated in September 2012 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong2 as a national conversation among Singaporeans. Its aim was to engage Singaporeans on their desired future for the nation and to establish a broad consensus on the key issues that should be addressed.

A 26-member committee led by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat was appointed as convenors and moderators, tapping on a wide range of perspectives and networks to seed and build conversations.

The committee comprised Singaporeans from different backgrounds, including grassroots, the private sector, unions, voluntary organisations, academia, the sports and arts communities, and political office-holders. In addition, an open call drew about 100 volunteers from both the private and public sectors who came forward to serve as facilitators and note-takers at OSC dialogues.

Concurrently, the Our Singapore Conversation Programme Office, formed under the Public Service Division, staffed a whole-of-government OSC Secretariat. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and the Ministry of Finance were institutional partners of the OSC Secretariat, overseeing media engagement and a parallel policy review process respectively.


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Context is about recognising the growing diversity in society in terms of profile and needs, and a dynamic external environment marked by greater uncertainty and complexity.

Collective Wisdom

As Singapore society becomes more diverse and citizens’ needs more multi-dimensional, the challenges faced by the public sector will also grow in magnitude and complexity. As a Public Service, we must acknowledge that we do not necessarily have all the answers, nor will we be able to predict every future challenge. The Government must expand its mindshare for problem solving, and tap the collective wisdom of a broader range of stakeholders in order to tackle national challenges more comprehensively.

Collective Action

The public sector is not always best placed to solve every problem. Instead, it can create capacity for collective action by involving society. Governance will become increasingly relational, shifting from a mode in which policies and services are delivered for the public, to one in which they are delivered with the public.

Shared Ownership

Increasingly, citizens expect a greater voice in policymaking and a partnership role with public agencies. OSC benefitted from citizen volunteers, especially private sector facilitators and community partners, who were involved in the design and delivery of the facilitation process, and who often provided candid feedback and suggestions. Their constructive involvement illustrates the principle that people develop shared ownership over a process or product that they help to create.


As a conversation among Singaporeans, OSC was about peer-to-peer connections, and expanding common space, through dialogues that focused on important priorities. This called for clarity of intent, inclusiveness and authenticity in the engagement design.

Clarity of Intent

Being clear about the intent of engagement at the outset shapes the design of the entire engagement experience. In Phase 1 of OSC, conversations were deliberately kept open-ended in order to generate a diversity of views and ideas.

In Phase 2, dialogue topics were tightly linked to the top priorities that emerged from the OSC survey, as well as policy areas the Ministries were reviewing or planning to review at that time.


A national conversation has to be inclusive. Language was an important element to consider in reaching out to certain stakeholders, such as the elderly who were more comfortable in the mother-tongue languages or Chinese dialects. That the OSC central dialogues were conducted primarily in English was a limitation: hence, the Secretariat actively supported community partners who organised ground-up dialogues in different languages and in different formats. In Phase 2, media partners such as the Chinese daily newspaper Lianhe Zaobao and the Malay daily newspaper Berita Harian reached out to readers in their respective languages. Newspaper “info-advertorials” in Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Minggu and Tamil Murasu summarising the OSC Reflections report5 also helped to broaden outreach across Singapore’s multiracial and multilingual communities.


Citizen volunteers were invaluable partners in co-creating national engagement. As neutral facilitators, they exemplified the authentic and sincere spirit that they hoped for among other participants. The format of small group-facilitated dialogue allowed everyone to speak and be heard, while the large group plenary at the open and close of each dialogue gave participants a sense of the whole. A key intent was that people should leave the dialogue feeling that they had been heard, and had benefitted from hearing the views of fellow Singaporeans. Even if a particular conversation did not generate substantive ideas, the very process of engagement and exchanging of perspectives built mutual understanding and trust.


Capacity in the OSC context reflects the potential that people have to contribute towards a larger purpose and shared future.


OSC was a process of envisioning Singapore’s shared future. This sense of common purpose helped attract more than 100 volunteer facilitators and note-takers, including citizens and public officers, over the year long exercise. Significantly, the pool of facilitators has since evolved into an informal community, bonded by a desire to sustain such engagement through conversation.

From the perspective of citizen participants, the OSC process expanded the common space for Singaporeans from across all walks of life to come together and talk about issues that matter to their shared future. Small group dialogues were organised to ensure a diverse mix of participants in terms of gender, age and occupation. This meant that core issues (e.g. definitions of success, affordability, identity) were viewed from the perspectives of young and old; singles and the married; employers and employees; new citizens and those born and bred in Singapore. Face-to-face platforms had the advantage of forging a sense of community and interpersonal connection as participants listened to one another. The dialogues made participants more aware of the diversity of perspectives and concerns across different segments of our society. At the same time, they helped reveal and clarify the values and aspirations that Singaporeans hold in common.

Community Partners

Community partners6 played an integral role in the national conversation as they gave voice to their stakeholders, including the less articulate, through a variety of means7 over time. Different approaches were needed to reach out to different segments of society; partnership with the community helped to multiply outreach. A key question for Government going forward is to find ways to continue to engage in a way that builds trust and engenders a sense of shared ownership over Singapore’s future. How do we identify more opportunities to partner citizens? How do we equip our community partners and citizen volunteers with tools for meaningful engagement?

Public Service

The OSC Secretariat, with broad representation from across the Public Service,8 formed the nucleus of the OSC movement. Initially, there was apprehension over how Singaporeans would respond to a seemingly messy and open process. By partnering with volunteers to prototype and refine the process, and in learning-by-doing, the team developed greater confidence along the way. They also experienced for themselves the spirit of openness and authenticity that OSC embodied.


Capability, in the OSC context, refers to the institutional capacity in Public Service to achieve joined outcomes. This encompasses people’s competencies and experiences, organisational structures, systems and information resources.

Bourgon9 and Ryan et al.10 have pointed out that public sector governance worldwide is trending towards more horizontal forms of collaboration that draw upon networks both within and outside government. Mutual engagement and learning become crucial to success. Such collective learning entails “experimentation” and “continual reframing” of the way complex issues are perceived and approached.

The OSC experience highlighted the importance of how we learn, not just what we learn. While training courses are conventionally regarded as essential for developing individual competencies, the OSC experience underscored another dimension of developing capability: collective learning in a collaborative setting.

Few officers in the OSC Secretariat had attended formal training on facilitation or public engagement; fewer still had had experience applying theory to actual engagement. The OSC process became a crucible of experiential learning in a social setting, where officers learned by doing, by observing others, through feedback and mutual coaching. A diverse mix of personalities and experience was also an asset: the OSC Secretariat included a former journalist, officers with operational experience from the Ministry of Home Affairs and policy officers with background in social work.

The OSC effort facilitated the development of new learning, mind-sets and competencies along three broad levels.


OSC was an emergent movement; the OSC Secretariat and participating agencies had to prototype new processes and learn on the fly. Officers had to deal with uncertainty (e.g. how the public might respond to the facilitation format) and try out new ideas. Having to engage multiple parties, including community partners, the media, vendors and citizen volunteers, required investment in relationship building. The horizontal forms of collaboration that characterised OSC pointed to the importance of interpersonal competencies, in particular the ability to influence others without formal authority.


The nature of OSC called for a wide range of officers with different talents and expertise to perform different roles — from event and participant management, engagement design and facilitation to community partnerships and media engagement. There were no standard operating manuals or precedence to fall back on; collective learning took place through prototyping, action and adaptation, with insights frequently exchanged through bi-weekly coordination meetings. It was important for protected time and space to be created so that team members could reflect on and share their learnings with others.

Collective level capabilities such as sensemaking, experimentation and red-teaming11 require officers to rise above their individual roles to see how their work is connected to the other work streams in delivering desired outcomes. In the OSC context, sensemaking involved interpreting ground sentiments and feedback to make necessary course corrections and anticipate next steps as a team. Experimentation included rapid prototyping and testing of ideas (e.g. facilitation methods) across teams, and with volunteers and partners both within and outside the core team.


What stood out in the leadership of the OSC process was the value of “sense-giving”: when leaders look at issues from a higher vantage point and provide others with a sense of meaning or a different way of seeing. During the OSC process, guidance from senior civil servants and the political leadership was crucial for moving forward through junctures of uncertainty. For example, timing the release of OSC Reflections to coincide with the National Day Rally 2013 was a key decision that helped close the loop on key concerns raised such as housing, healthcare and education.

Enabling leadership, which creates the conditions for others to contribute, was also vital to OSC. There was a conscious effort to maintain a strong culture of trust within the OSC Secretariat. Officers, regardless of rank, could feel comfortable speaking up if they had ideas to share or concerns to raise. It was an acknowledgement that leaders do not necessarily have all the answers, and that officers working directly with stakeholders ought to be able to exercise their judgment and surface alternative options.

Ministry-led OSC Sessions

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The OSC marked a pivotal point in redefining public engagement in Singapore. It is also the start of a much longer journey, in which the Government must continue to engage citizens in a manner that builds genuine trust. The Public Service should therefore continue to deepen its expertise in pertinent areas such as facilitation and engagement design, and to recognise that authentic engagement has proven its value in nurturing mutual trust and understanding with the public.

In playing a central role in the OSC movement, the Public Service has gained insights into the value of Context, Connection, Capacity and Capability. What will take us forward in making public engagement a game changer for Singapore may be a fifth C: Conviction.


Melissa Khoo is Director at the Institute of Public Sector Leadership, Civil Service College. She was Director of the Our Singapore Conversation Programme Office from September 2012 to 2013, co-ordinating the national conversation effort. She has served in the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Education, and was previously seconded to Shell. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and a Master’s degree in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.

Yee Lai Fong is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. She was attached to the Our Singapore Conversation Secretariat as a learning historian to document the public sector’s insights and reflections from this collective journey. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Education and Human Development from George Washington University and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Human and Organisational Learning at the same university.


  1. By design, OSC featured a multimodal, multi-sectoral approach to encourage outreach, with conversations self-organised by various community groups. The process also saw the prototyping of small-group facilitated dialogue which encouraged peer-to-peer interactions between Singaporeans. Citizen volunteers were the key partners who co-created the engagement process with the organising team.
  2. “Singapore 21”, 1999,
  3. “Remaking Singapore”, 2002,;
  4. Antonie van Nistelrooij, and Harry Sminia, “Organisation Development: What’s Actually Happening?”, Journal of Change Management 10 (2010): 409. Dialogue is defined as “an interpersonal process to exchange individual frames,” serving as a powerful “vehicle for change”.
  6. Examples of community partners include Lions Befrienders, Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, RSVP Singapore, Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, The Salvation Army, Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, Green Community, Agency for Animal Welfare, KPMG and Philips.
  7. Apart from the NTUC’s labour movement series and the People’s Association’s grassroots series, most other ground-up dialogues took months to gain momentum, being a new form of engagement to most citizens. Awareness built up slowly, fanning out through connections with OSC Committee members. A range of self-organised dialogues gradually developed: the National Taxi Associations’ “Kopi-Talks”; sessions held at food centres such as NTUC Foodfare; dialect-speaking sessions convened and facilitated by volunteer welfare organisations, and so on.
  8. The OSC Secretariat comprised officers from the Public Service Division, Civil Service College, and the Ministries of Home Affairs, Finance, and Communications and Information partnering the Ministries of Education, Health, National Development and Manpower.
  9. Jocelyne Bourgon, “The Future of Public Service: A Search for a New Balance”, The Australian Journal of Public Administration 67 (2008): 390–404.
  10. Bill Ryan, et al., “Managing for Joint Outcomes: Connecting up the Horizontal and the Vertical” Policy Quarterly, 4 (2008) 14–21.
  11. Red-teaming is a form of ritualised dissent, or playing the “devil’s advocate” (e.g. in the process of reviewing products, processes and message testing), to ensure robustness.

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