The Changing Face of Government

The Ethos Roundtable brings together thought leaders and practitioners to discuss key issues of interest to the public service. In this session, three eminent participants in Singapore’s inaugural Leaders in Governance Programme reflect on the evolving challenges facing public sectors around the world today.


DR ASHRAF HASSAN ABDELWAHAB, Deputy to the Minister, State for Administrative Development, Egypt

MR MOTHUSI BRUCE RABASHA PALAI, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, Botswana

MR FENG TIE, Counsellor, Department of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China

From your perspective, what are the main issues and challenges facing the public sector today?

ASHRAF: I’ll take this question at two levels. At the local level, in Egypt, our challenge is that the number of public servants has risen greatly—we have 4 million at the moment, and we need to get back to a more sustainable 1.8 or 2 million. So we are working on how to restructure government without causing unemployment.

Another issue is how to improve public service culture, how we serve our customers, the way we do business with different sectors and how to encourage innovation in the public service. We need to think about how to provide good incentives, leadership and an environment that fosters this sort of culture. I think this is also a global challenge.

PALAI: In a developing country, the government still has an extremely important role to play in growing the economy. They have to create the necessary environment—policies, regulations, laws—to ensure that businesses can then take root and do what they do best. Therefore, the issue of public service culture is an important one—they have to begin to see their role in the bigger picture, as part of a larger economy, and learn to be more business-oriented. In the last 30 to 40 years, we have not emphasised enough their role as servants of the public in this way, and it is time we went back to basics.

There are also issues of coordination across different sectors—individual needs may involve many different pieces of information and processes across different ministries, and we need to achieve synergy among them.

The other is an issue of expectations. Because of communications that have opened up all over the world, people—even in the developing world—know what goes on, say, in Singapore. They may not have been there themselves, but they know life can be better. This creates a serious expectation gap, particularly when we have a group of people at First World level in a country that is Third World. But this is also how organisations are going to convince people, for example, that if your production takes forever, you are not going to be able to compete with people in Singapore. The pressure on government is tremendous.

FENG: China is now at a very crucial stage of its development and reform. We actually introduced reforms and an opening up of policies 30 years ago, and over the past 30 years, I think we have made tremendous progress in terms of economic and social development. We had a very important Party Congress last year and our aim is to achieve a fairly comfortable life for our people by the year 2020. Our goal is to quadruple our 2000 GDP by the year 2020, so that it will reach US$4 trillion, or US$3,000 per capita.

One challenge we face is how to promote balanced development—to ensure rapid yet sound and sustainable economic growth. How do we expand our socialist democracy and better safeguard people’s rights and interests as well as preserve social equity and justice? Another challenge is to preserve the natural environment and climate, and to promote an energy and resource-efficient economy.

Against this big picture, we believe the role of the public sector is to accelerate reforms of the administrative system towards a service-oriented government. Singapore is fortunate to have just one tier of government; we have at least five tiers, including central, provincial and municipal levels. And they are all public servants. Yesterday, one of my colleagues asked how many public servants we have—I said I don’t know.

We are still developing a masterplan for administrative reform; we need to improve the government’s accountability system, and separate the functions of government from those of enterprises. We have to standardise the relationship between the different tiers of government, downsize certain functions and coordinate across the system. This is a huge challenge.

As governments become more lean and efficient, how can they continue to play a crucial role in economic and social development?

ASHRAF: The role of government has changed. At some point, the government owned everything: all the factories, companies, the economy, and it was responsible for education, health and so on, and everyone served the government, not the other way around. Centralised government promised people the following: “You just work, we will take care of you”. Now we have moved to a different kind of economic structure where the government’s role in industry has to be reduced, because running a company requires more nimble management. Most of the time, governments do not know how to do what the private sector does easily. So you should try to find someone who is capable of running the company better than the government. But you shouldn’t just leave the private sector and citizens to face off without arbitration.

There is a stronger role than ever, in terms of regulation. You should be intervening at the right time and having some sort of leverage over the market. Governments have to monitor market sectors and provide the necessary frameworks and logistics to make sure that there is competitiveness, the market is open to different players and citizens’ rights are preserved.

Governments, apart from being regulators, also have to look ahead, see what is on the horizon, and plan for the future.

There is a stronger role than ever, in terms of regulation. You should be intervening at the right time and having some sort of leverage over the market.

PALAI: The challenge for governments is to develop the necessary capacity to understand and leverage on globalisation for national benefit, without necessarily increasing the bureaucracy to do so.

I think it is key to stay only in the few areas where government is really needed, such as security, and roll back in other areas to create space for people. Why, for example, am I regulating so many businesses? What if I say: “Ok, all I do is check that you’re legitimate and not tied to a terrorist organisation, and then you carry on”? I think this has to be part of the rethinking of government.

Increasingly we are beginning to accept that wealth creation is better done by individuals and individual companies than by government. So the public sector has to develop a new service culture which says, I work for you. If you want a license to get on with business, I give it to you and you then go on to create the wealth.

Governments also get greater value out of taxes from private enterprise, rather than by trying to run businesses themselves.

The challenge for governments is to develop the necessary capacity to understand and leverage on globalisation for national benefit, without necessarily increasing the bureaucracy to do so.

FENG: I notice that the Singapore Government plays a very strong and positive role in the economy. It means that government still has a very important role to play in a market economy.

In China, one aspect of being a service-oriented government is to provide service quickly and effectively, for example in approving an application for starting up a company. Another service is in providing a good environment and infrastructure to attract investments and development. Governments will also be needed to make good regulations; tax policies, for example, have to be attractive to foreign investors.

But when government provides a service, it is not always passive. Sometimes you have to be very active, because globalisation can be resource intensive and involve a lot of risk. The government must have a vision. It plays an important role in pushing for economic transformation, particularly in developing countries.

As economies grow at a rapid place, the gap between haves and have-nots is also widening. How should governments address this challenge?

ASHRAF: I think it is the social responsibility of the government to make sure that society is moving together. Government has to provide the policies and regulations to make sure that everyone has a share, and that it’s not just wealth accumulated by one group of people, because of unequal education, skills or health or whatever reasons. Economic growth should benefit society overall.

But growth is a tool for solving other problems, such as the eradication of poverty for example, and social stability. You have to have growth and wealth to ensure social stability. Otherwise, it will fall apart because people will start to feel poor, and lost, and fight among themselves.

FENG: Inequality is a big problem facing China, due to unbalanced development between the different regions, and between urban citizens and rural farmers. We are in the process of reforming our distribution system. That is to say we will stick to and improve the system whereby distribution according to work remains the predominant mode and co-exists with various other systems. As a government, we should also allow the factors of production, such as labour, management expertise and technology to play a role in distribution. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to strike a balance between efficiency and equality. This is why the government will continue to have a very big role to play. In China, we try to subsidise low income families and so on, and there is much more we can do.

PALAI: What I see in Singapore is that you were careful not to make too many tradeoffs on economic growth for the sake of social ideals. You chose to solve the question of poverty and inequality through growth, which does not undermine self-reliance. The thing is, governments have to help, but help in a different way, one that does not undermine society and culture. We have to help people to grow out of their own poverty.

From your time in Singapore at the Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP), is there anything else that you have observed to be useful?

ASHRAF: I think your social schemes such as housing and CPF (Central Provident Fund) are very important, because it helps social cohesion. Egypt has a pension scheme, but it doesn’t cover housing, for example. So, why don’t we consider housing as a tool to motivate people? I have a house; I work to pay for instalments with a CPF account. We may be able to adapt this to our environment.

When government provides a service, it is not always passive. Sometimes you have to be very active, because globalisation can be resource intensive and involve a lot of risk.

FENG: I have the same feeling about public housing and also the public transport system. It’s very impressive, actually. In Beijing, we are now beginning to build more lines. We have a larger population and it is more difficult, but I think some of the policies you have adopted to promote public transport, to limit private cars, are very helpful.

Also, your emphasis on recycling water is also quite impressive. Beijing is a city in shortage of water, so I think it is something from which we can draw some experiences.

PALAI: For me, it is a matter of your leadership and execution, the will to stand up and make it work and get results. You go out and look for opportunities, and create things that are not there yet, at a very high level. I feel sometimes governments talk and plan forever, they over-consult. They spend too much time thinking through things and they miss opportunities when they could have leveraged on what they have got. We have to be prepared to make mistakes; if we think there’s an opportunity, let’s go for it.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor Alvin Pang in January 2008. Dr Ashraf, Mr Palai and Mr Feng were participants in the inaugural Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP), organised by the Singapore Civil Service College from 13 to 23 January 2008 in Singapore. Drawing from Singapore's development experience, the LGP offered 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 interacted with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visited key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and systems.

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