Article

Reviewing Whole-of-Government Collaboration in the Singapore Public Service

Findings from a 2010 survey offer ways to improve collaboration among government agencies.

Date Posted

6 Jan 2011

Issue

Issue 9, 14 Jun 2011

UNDERSTANDING WOG COLLABORATION

Governments today have had to adopt Whole-of-Government (WOG) thinking as a matter of necessity, as public issues become increasingly more complex and multi-dimensional. Such an approach allows governments to tap on diverse knowledge, viewpoints and ideas from across the public sector, with officers from different agencies coming together to broaden and deepen policy development, and to deliver services to citizens in more synergistic ways. On the basis that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, concerted and coordinated WOG efforts can achieve greater outcomes than the most competent individual agencies working alone. If well executed, a WOG strategy is a powerful source of competitive advantage for governments – one which, furthermore, is not easy to replicate.

True WOG collaboration requires agencies to make their vertical organisational structures permeable so that learning, communication, analysis and decision-making processes can take place across organisational boundaries. While structures and processes supporting WOG collaboration are key, what is more important is that public officers across all levels of government believe in the value of operating as one government in the work they undertake.

It is worth pointing out that WOG collaboration does not always yield a better outcome: In instances where the cost of collaboration outweighs the benefit of doing so, the task is better assigned to a specific agency. Examples include areas where an organisation's deep functional or technical expertise could be weakened as a result of collaboration, or when collaboration is foisted on officers who are not yet ready to fully embrace the spirit and substance of a collaborative approach.

THE CURRENT STATE OF WOG COLLABORATION

In early 2010, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Public Service Division (PSD) commissioned the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and the Nanyang Business School (NBS)1 to take stock, assess and review the state of WOG collaboration in the Singapore Public Service.2 It was intended to give greater clarity to the term “WOG collaboration” as applied in the Singapore Public Service, identify supporting factors as well as impediments, and recommend strategies to improve collaboration among government agencies.3

WOG COLLABORATION IN SINGAPORE: WHAT WORKS

Drawing from its observations, the study, started in July 2009 and completed in September 2010, identified five approaches which could enhance WOG collaboration in the Singapore Public Service.

1. Pursue disciplined, rather than directed collaborations

Most major, large-scale WOG collaborations to date have been directed top-down from senior government and public sector leadership. Directed collaborations as such are likely to face two challenges. First, some officers may have been appointed or co-opted to join the project rather than collaborating out of conviction. Second, there is an assumption that the ones directing the project have all the necessary information and knowledge to see it through, which could overburden the project sponsor. Both of these limitations could result in less optimal outcomes for WOG collaboration.

While there will always be a place for directed projects, mature WOG collaboration calls for a more disciplined yet decentralised approach,where officers possessing the necessary skills, experience and interests become naturally inclined to come together to work as a team without close direction from their superiors. This self-selection process also leads to better team dynamics since members share a common goal, with a greater willingness to resolve conflicts when they arise. Positive experiences of working with one another will also build reciprocity, trust and therefore better relationships among officers for future collaborations.

2. Move from resource allocation to resource leveraging

Teams working on WOG projects may require additional resources in order to achieve desired outcomes. Recognising this, central agencies such as MOF and PSD have steered agencies towards better collaboration by granting additional funds or human resources towards WOG projects. The alternative is for agencies to redirect what existing resources they can spare, which means WOG projects have to compete with agencies’ own projects for priority and limited resources. This is likely to result in less than optimal resource allocation and outcomes.

To get out of this bind, the government bureaucracy will need to be more permeable and allow a freer flow of resources. Agencies would then be better able to leverage the most appropriate resources to tackle complex issues, capitalise on emerging trends and create new markets. Such resource leveraging would allow expertise, physical assets and intellectual properties to be quickly redeployed and recombined in innovative ways, allowing the whole Public Service to overcome administrative constraints and enjoy new economies of scale. Given that such an approach would require a degree of flexibility and give-and-take, an environment of mutual trust and strong social networks would need to exist among public officers collaborating towards shared, long-term goals.

3. Establish processes, not just structures

Both temporary and permanent inter-agencies structures such as task force steering and review committees, have been useful platforms, bringing officers together to brainstorm, discuss and work on WOG projects. To support these structures, there must be clear processes to facilitate the way officers work with one another. These processes should allow seamless communication, information sharing, decision-making and approval within the team. In the WOG study, interviewees often highlighted that it was not the lack of structures, but the lack of processes that impeded collaborative efforts.

4. Think customer and citizen needs, not agency priorities

For effective WOG collaboration to take place, officers need to think of outcomes in terms of customer and citizen requirements rather than just their agencies' functional scope. This will enable officers to define problems and design products and services more holistically, instead of trying to coordinate fragmented service offerings at the back end. A customer-oriented mind-set – particularly with the overarching goal of bettering the lives of Singaporeans – would also help in balancing WOG goals with individual agency mandate and goals.

5. Empower officers to solve problems without escalation

The most common form of conflict resolution in WOG projects today is to escalate the matter to higher authorities for resolution. While such hierarchy-based processes do work in the short term or in critical situations, WOG project teams should be empowered to resolve operational issues at the working level. Even if formal approval is still needed, members should be able to engage freely in discussions, without fear of reprisal from their superiors – not only to achieve better outcomes, but to build a stronger collaborative spirit that will enhance the group's overall performance and WOG results.

WOG Collaboration Study

The WOG Collaboration Study classified all WOG efforts undertaken in Singapore to date into six types.

Read More

TOWARDS A MORE CONDUCIVE WOG ENVIRONMENT

The Singapore Public Service has done much to make WOG collaborations work, despite the many challenges of working together across multiple administrative boundaries, organisation priorities and complex public issues, with evidence that the planning, coordination and execution of WOG initiatives have steadily improved with time. These successes lay the necessary groundwork of expertise, experience and trust for more elaborate collaborative initiatives in future. The study makes several recommendations for developing a more conducive public sector environment in order to enhance and sustain Singapore's WOG efforts.

Establish WOG-Compliant Institutions and Rules

Some level of central planning for WOG collaborations is already undertaken by the central agencies of MOF and PSD, as a matter of operational necessity, but there is still a lack of clear ownership for the planning, coordinating, tracking and documentation of WOG collaborations in the service. A dedicated WOG office could act as a central point for all government agencies planning to work or are already in WOG projects, help eliminate duplication, track the progress of on-going collaborations, mediate when disputes arise, and serve as an important source of institutional memory for earlier collaborative strategies.

Rewards and recognition frameworks should also take into account the nature of WOG collaborations. Officers on secondment to collaborative projects can be recognised for good performance in cross-agency initiatives, for instance, through a formal cross-agency feedback system.4 At the agency level, KPIs should be rationalised to reflect joint outcomes so that agencies involved can be duly recognised for their contributions to national goals.

Develop Organisational Capabilities

The ability to work in cross-agency teams should not be assumed as a given. The WOG study cited the value of T-shaped managers: leaders who combine deep specialist expertise with broader perspectives, who are able to transcend traditional hierarchical roles to contribute across organisational lines, but are nevertheless still committed to their agency's performance. Training programmes could be developed to help officers work more effectively in WOG teams; officers with a bent for collaborative work could be identified and nurtured early in their careers.

Nurture a WOG-Ready Culture

Many interviewees spoke of the need to inculcate a long-term WOG culture in the Public Service, in which individual officers are motivated and committed to think and work in WOG terms across agency boundaries. While this will require concerted effort over time, officers at all levels can be given ample opportunities to socialise so that they can begin to establish their own networks, build trust and be better equipped to work across agencies.

Public sector leaders have an especially important role to play: in their formal and day-to-day interaction with colleagues, they should exemplify the characteristics of WOG, and walk the talk. They help nurture a psychologically safe environment in which a culture of collaboration can take root, where public officers feel confident about sharing their thoughts and question assumptions without prejudice.

Strategic social networks and communities should be developed among agencies with high incidence of collaborations. In the process, key connectors, influential brokers and experienced WOG role models in the public sector community at all levels of the Service can be identified. These key figures will be highly influential in moving the public sector forward towards more effective collaboration.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kharina Zainal is Principal Researcher at the Centre of Governance Leadership whose works focus on organisational development and social policies.


NOTES

  1. Professor Neo Boon Siong from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore and Professor Boh Wai Fong from the Nanyang Business School (NBS), Nanyang Technological University.
  2. The concept of a Whole-of-Government approach was first introduced to the Singapore Public Service in the early 1990s.
  3. The study spanned over a year with officers from the Ministry of Finance, Public Service Division and Civil Service College working closely with the research team from LKYSPP and NBS. A total of 65 interviews were conducted with senior officers (deputy directors and above) from 8 ministries and 10 agencies, whose job scope involved working closely with counterparts from other agencies within the Public Service.
  4. The Infocomm Development Authority employs a cross-agency feedback system for its officers seconded to other agencies.

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