Strategic in Outlook, Nimble in Execution: Strengthening the Centre in Government

To stay strategic in outlook and nimble in execution, the Singapore Armed Forces restructured its chain of command. Should the rest of the public sector follow suit?

Date Posted

1 Apr 2007


Issue 2, 14 Apr 2007


The Singapore Government has been highly effective in conceptualising and implementing strategic ideas — a strength that has played a major role in Singapore's success. Concerns have been raised, however, that our edge for swift, decisive action may be at risk of erosion as the public sector becomes structurally more complex. In particular, there appears to be three structural bottlenecks in our current policy formulation and implementation process. These suggest that a thorough review of Civil Service planning and strategy formulation processes may be necessary to preserve our competitive edge as a forward-looking, nimble Government.

First, the Civil Service needs to identify new economic opportunities as they arise and be quick to exploit them. This is especially vital since Singapore is essentially a price-taker in the international economic and technological spheres. However, some senior leaders in Government have cautioned that as our bureaucracy has thickened, we may not be as bold and entrepreneurial as we used to be in identifying and following through with new ideas. This inertia in Government could be the result of policymakers considering issues only from the limited perspective of individual Ministries, or it could be the consequence of endless consultations, negotiations and compromises across too many agencies before action can be taken, by which time the impetus would have been lost.

Another recurring dilemma is that many national objectives have to be traded off against one another. For instance, economic policies need to be balanced against social goals (e.g., deeper integration with the global economy at the expense of a higher level of structural unemployment) or security concerns (e.g., loosening of visa requirements for certain nationals). At present, such trade-offs can only be arbitrated by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet since staff at the lower levels of Government do not currently have the mandate to make the necessary judgement calls between conflicting priorities.

This leads to a third problem: trade-offs are better managed if there is sufficient lead time, which is only possible in the developmental arena. In other words, the capacity to make optimal trade-offs is more likely to fail when events are already unfolding by the hour, such as during the SARS crisis, or in the way public communications or information operations were handled during the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting. The capacity to make effective trade-offs is further hindered by the proliferation of statutory boards — each with its own priorities and timelines.

The capacity to make effective trade-offs is hindered by the proliferation of agencies — each with its own priorities and timelines.

A review of governmental structures and processes should address these three bottlenecks. To rediscover our strategic effectiveness, we will need to look at issues holistically beyond the concerns of individual Ministries; we must also have the capacity to implement developmental policies and execute operations nimbly across the whole of Government.

Some existing initiatives and structures go some way towards addressing these issues. For example, the Strategy Policy Office (SPO) anticipates changes on the horizon and supports the Government in articulating a vision of Singapore's possible and desired futures. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) arbitrates trade-offs between various Ministries through the budget allocation process. The Public Service Division (PSD) influences postings of Administrative Officers and Management Associates, and therefore affects distribution of talent in the public sector to some extent. The National Security Coordination Secretariat and the National Research Foundation are two bodies that have also strengthened the decisive "centre" of the Civil Service. Despite these efforts, the three structural barriers to nimble strategic action persist.


How might the Civil Service overcome its structural bottlenecks? The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), which has transformed its organisational structure over the past two and a half years, may provide useful lessons.

The main premise of the SAF reorganisation effort is that a strong centre is critical in ensuring that we take a visionary approach to issues; make the best trade-offs in achieving our strategic priorities; and make decisions effectively and swiftly on operational matters.

From 1982 to 2004, the role of the Joint Staff designation in the SAF was to coordinate between the three SAF Services (Army, Navy and Air Force) in their respective development and operations. Prior to the SAF's organisational review, planning and operations were decentralised to facilitate the rapid build-up of basic capacity in each of the three Services. In a large and complex organisation, locally optimal solutions were the quickest way to build baseline capabilities, but decentralisation also led to paralysis, because decisions in the interest of one agency may be at the expense of the larger organisation.

In its transformed role, Joint Staff now actively directs the Services in both development and operations. Optimisation in planning and execution can now be achieved at the level of the entire SAF rather than at the level of individual Services. By adopting a more integrated approach, the SAF is better able to make trade-offs with a holistic view of strategic priorities for the entire organisation.

The success of the strengthened role for Joint Staff was demonstrated in recent operations. For example, in the relief operations in Aceh in Indonesia, there was only one chain of command from the troops via the Head of Joint Ops, Director of Joint Ops and Planning Directorate to the Chief Defence Force for day-to-day operations, and further to the Minister overseeing strategic decisions. All assets — whether from the Army, Navy or Air Force — came under a single chain of command. All issues were handled through this single chain of command without having to be cleared through respective commanders in the Army, Air Force and Navy, as was previously done.

Development in the SAF has also benefited from the strengthened role of the Joint Staff office. Previously, the three SAF Services would come up with their own operational requirements and development plans with only very broad central guidelines. The role of Joint Staff was mainly a "residual" one — to resolve conflicts between the needs of the three Services — rather than to ensure integration and extract synergies across the SAF. The final budget needed to build up the SAF, for instance, was a simple summation of the requirements from the individual Services, rather than one based on overall strategic priorities for the entire SAF. Under this system, strategic capabilities that cut across the three Services were less likely to be built, because these Service-wide initiatives did not have a clear owner. The risk of over-building, especially of peripheral capabilities, was also greater.

In contrast, today's strengthened Joint Staff has the mandate to originate and prioritise the strategic requirements of the Services through a series of medium- and long-term plans. The Joint Staff also actively participates in the Services' Operational Masterplanning, ensuring that these requirements are transformed into actual projects and capabilities.


The experience of the SAF suggests that in order to make the Civil Service more strategic and nimble in an era where issues increasingly cut across agency jurisdictions, it is clear that its centre needs to be strengthened.

Under our present system, issues can only be centrally directed to a limited degree, for instance, through MOF when a project comes up for reinvestment funding. This arrangement is reactive, rather than one where a central authority can proactively direct the system towards strategic ends. Our situation is akin to the legal process, where a case has to be put before the authorities before a guiding precedent can be established.

Singapore's Civil Service could benefit from a strong central directorate, with Head, Civil Service (HCS) playing a role analogous to the Chief-of-Staff, Joint Staff (COS-JS) in the SAF. The SAF Service Chiefs currently direct developmental policy for their respective Services. The COS-JS, however, has the mandate and executive capacity to direct the work of the three Services so that all issues are managed from a holistic, SAF-wide perspective. Applying this analogy to the Civil Service, the Permanent Secretaries would remain primarily responsible to their Ministers but there would be a greater degree of coordination and direction executed by HCS. Without this level of coordination, issues surfaced to the Cabinet would be largely filtered through the agency-centric views of individual Ministries. To facilitate the required level of coordination, it would also be ideal if the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) (specifically, PSD and SPO) and MOF could come under the direct supervision of HCS.

Processes would have to be modified to allow HCS to discharge his increased responsibilities. HCS would only be able to exercise his mandate if he is able to utilise, mobilise, and emplace people of the appropriate calibre and experience, and deploy appropriate resources to make things happen. We may wish to consider strengthening SPO and the overall planning processes so as to allow HCS and his staff to prioritise the work of the Civil Service as a whole. To add teeth to this mandate, the authority of MOF to allocate funds should also come under HCS and his office. HCS should also be given greater powers in initiating and recommending manpower postings. The HCS position should, therefore, be a full-time appointment and his office would oversee both PMO and MOF.

The SAF experience suggests that wide-ranging reforms to organisational structure need to be adopted with sufficient ambition and scope to be truly effective — this may well be true for the Civil Service as well. It might be argued that by strengthening the centre, we run the risk of emasculating the individual Ministries. However, while the centre needs strengthening, this should not be achieved at the expense of the Ministries' core competencies.

Individual Ministries will need to be as strong as ever in their functional competencies. Otherwise, they run the danger of not having sufficient specialist expertise to take strategic action. However, Ministries will have to be convinced of the value of giving up some of their decision-making prerogative in the interest of a stronger and more holistic perspective on strategic issues that cut across the whole of Government. If they can be persuaded, the Civil Service has the potential to take on a far more strategic orientation and become a lot quicker and more nimble in execution.


Brigadier-General Ng Chee Khern is Chief of Air Force. A pilot by vocation, he previously served as Director, Joint Operations and Planning Directorate and Chief of Staff (Air Staff). This article was written while he was attending the Institute of Policy Development's 6th Leaders in Administration Programme (9 October to 17 November 2006).

Back to Ethos homepage