Striking the Right Balance

Participants from the 7th Leaders in Governance Programme discuss the prospects for maintaining an agile and prosperous society that is also responsive to diverse and increasingly complex needs.

Date Posted

14 Feb 2016


Issue 14, 14 Feb 2016


Mr Hamzah Sulaiman, Permanent Secretary (International, Planning and Development Economy and Finance), Prime Minister’s Office, Brunei Darussalam

Mr Filimone Waqabaca, High Commissioner, High Commission of the Republic of Fiji, New Zealand

Mr Mohammed Mosly, Deputy Director General for Special Programs, Human Resources Development Fund, Saudi Arabia

On Challenges Facing Governments Today

Hamzah: The global context has changed. Globalisation is a big factor. Technology connects people across the world in an instant, and ideas are being spread quite easily now. What has happened is that concepts of information sharing, transparency, good governance and public participation have now come to the fore. Governments all over the world have to deal with this. Significantly, most governments and public servants are not equipped to do this.

We need to equip our public servants with the necessary competencies to deal with such issues, including public engagement. This is quite new, especially if you come from an earlier generation of civil servants who need to learn how to be comfortable being more accountable and transparent to the public.

Another challenge is what I would call the “electronic games syndrome” — the new generation wants answers in an instant. That’s not how governments work.

Waqabaca: The challenges are magnified because the world is interconnected. People can now make comparisons about how they are being served in their country and what other people are getting elsewhere. For example, if a public service or social welfare scheme is available in one country but not another, people might ask for it to be provided by their government. This puts pressure on governments who may not be able to provide such services at this stage. So how do you equip civil servants to manage such expectations?

I think the necessary changes in mindset are two-fold. One is from the civil servants themselves: career civil servants do not embrace change easily; we think that we know the right answers to every issue that comes along; we are reluctant to accept that any new ideas are being brought forth. So if change and progress are to take place, there must be an overhaul of this mindset in the entire public sector, especially among those who have come up through the system.

The second mindset shift is with regard to governments — towards governing with the people, and with the people in mind, rather than assuming that government knows best and should dictate the way everything has to be done. We need to bring other stakeholders along — the private sector, and non-state actors — to help find solutions and then to move forward together instead of simply raising issues or complaining.

Mosly: It boils down to three things for me: shifts in mindsets, communication and leadership. The nature of each challenge depends on whether you are looking at the government, or the citizenry, or civil servants or institutions: whether each of these sectors has good leadership, whether they adopt mindsets that are aligned with the way the world is going, and whether there is appropriate communication between them.

Globally, the old mindset of prioritising “what’s good for me and my family” is not going to work anymore. Increasingly, issues can only be resolved by working holistically, horizontally and not in silos. But it is very tough to train citizens to think like that. If you have a sick daughter or she’s not doing well in school, or if you’re poor, it is hard to think systematically about the community or society.

Now that the world has started to look at the environment, people can start to see how it’s going to impact us. But social issues are not as clear as environmental issues. Yet if we don’t take into account the social aspects of life, and think about them holistically, the way we think about the environment and pollution, they could just as well destroy us.

One important point is to embrace — or at least recognise — the diversity in our societies. It is not good to have a single generalised model. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, we are very diverse culturally from one region to another. And the majority of our population are youth. Differences in cultural norms between communities, and between generations, along with greater connectivity to the world, make the challenge of governance one of dynamic, never-ending, rapidly changing complexity. But how do we grapple with it?

On Managing Diversity in Society

Hamzah: Being connected has its advantages and disadvantages. Technology has amplified what used to be minority voices across society. Policymaking is getting more diverse and hence complex — societies can no longer be painted with one brush. Trying to get everybody on the same page is more difficult now. Yet you have to come to a collective decision and formulate policy so that people are generally not worse off. Trying to find a win-win space is difficult in diverse cultures and now the comparisons are to global benchmarks — not just to Brunei, where I’m from, but to the US or the UK and elsewhere.

This is why I think there has to be a gut-level conversation between governments and the governed. And there must be an understanding that governments cannot act instantly like they used to be able to, when they were operating within an environment they set up and could control. There must be certain parameters established so that society can come to a solution that works not just for participating individuals but also for the government and the whole nation.

That conversation is getting more difficult — both our bosses and the people are becoming more impatient.

Mosly: Each country and its government structure, population, economy is going to be different. For example, you have Singapore, with a system that is agile, efficient and professional. And then you can have a country that has a legacy of bureaucracy and career government employees, for example, can get used to things taking a long time to happen. This is not necessarily a bad thing: sometimes things will take time, and you are thankful for it, because you’ve discovered a lot of mistakes along the way and the outcome could have been chaos had you rushed.

To balance between both approaches, we are shifting towards public-private partnerships, and creating structures to create more agility and responsiveness. But each country has its own context and will need its own elements to move ahead. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. The challenge is to find a way to balance between standardisation of processes, while allowing for customisation and personalisation according to local context, and remaining agile as a system.

Waqabaca: I think the people need to be made aware of and to understand the structures that are in place. Order is brought about by establishing institutions and processes. The people need to know how issues are being handled through these structures, and what the trade-offs are; they need to know what the government can or cannot do. Of course, this does not stop us from making continuous improvements to our institutions and processes to keep up with the times.

Hamzah: The challenge will be trying to get people to understand the processes and institutions of governance. Some have done it through schools or through civic education. Once you have that understanding, I think there must also be some leadership, whether it’s from the government or from the community, to forge not just a whole-of-government approach, but a “Whole-of-Nation” partnership. Every nation has different cultures, different values – I think in this process you will uncover your true values. What matters most to a society? This will inform the way it allocates its resources.

We should consider our definitions of meritocracy. Is meritocracy a matter of academic achievement and hard work? Or do we say that we want people to train from young to be good at what they do, to work hard for what they earn and what they deserve? Values can also be seen as competencies regardless of credentials.

On Meritocracy, Values and an Inclusive Society

Waqabaca: When I heard the term “meritocracy” emphasised over and over again in Singapore, the thought that came to mind was whether you are creating a two-tier society. The best are being looked after, but what about the rest? I note that in Singapore you do have programmes that try to empower the rest, so that they can also excel. Meritocracy has its role, but you need to see how you can manage those who fall behind.

I would rather have someone who is not technically superior but who has very good values, because the technical aspect can be acquired. With the right values, it will be easy to train them up. When I was with the Ministry of Finance in Fiji, which is one of the most sought after institutions to work for, one of the key things that we look for in an applicant are his or her values. We don’t focus too much on their academic results because we know that once they come in, we can train them to become good central bankers.

Mosly: We should step back and ask why meritocracy was adopted, and consider our definitions of meritocracy. Is meritocracy a matter of academic achievement and hard work? Or do we say that we want people to train from young to be good at what they do, to work hard for what they earn and what they deserve? If that’s the case, then you shouldn’t only focus on academic credentials but should also look at human, social, behavioural, attitudinal values that can be instilled. These values can also be seen as competencies regardless of credentials.

My grandfather never went to school and he was one of the most successful businessmen in Saudi Arabia — he had a very strong set of values. Our system recognises values such as empathy, loyalty, passion, trustworthiness and service orientation. These things can be instilled and ingrained, like a sort of cultural DNA; the rest are hard skills that can be trained for. In the course of the next generation, academic credentials will be rated less highly. There will be different ways of delivering knowledge and education.

If we don't take into account the social aspects of life, and think about them holistically, the way we think about the environment and pollution, they could just as well destroy us.

I would say the focus in the future ought to be more on tools for behavioural and attitudinal analysis. There are very good psychometric tools that are used in the private sector to assess people’s behaviours and attitudes — a psychological composition, on how they deal with issues. To me, these are as good indicators of quality as someone’s academic background. I have met people with graduate degrees from Harvard who don’t really fit in the workplace; someone else with the right charisma, attitude and values could do much better.

Hamzah: Meritocracy as a value has served Singapore well. But if you go to the extreme, you may forget those who are left out. Society is not only about the winners. You have to take care of the weak as well. This is where the idea of a caring meritocracy comes in — you have to look after all of society, not only the winners.

Ultimately, what we want to achieve is an inclusive society. But that brings its own challenge, which is sustainability. How do you sustain a stable, meritocratic and inclusive society with a high quality of life, over generations?

You would need to continue to strike a balance — to maintain efficiency and effectiveness when you govern, yet also be compassionate. Talking to colleagues in Singapore, I think you are at a crossroads in terms of trying to achieve this balance, with recent policy shifts to take care of those who did not benefit as much from Singapore’s success.

Systems — whether political, cultural, social or otherwise — inevitably change once there is an imbalance. If you don’t adapt, you will be left behind. Other people will take courses of action that ensure attention is placed on changes they would like to see. You can’t go overboard in either direction because it is going to catch up with you later. But if Singapore can find a model that achieves balance, it would serve the whole world.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang in September 2014 with a group of participants in the 7th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP) in late 2014. 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 eight-day programme, participants interact with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.