How the New Synthesis (NS) Framework Came About
Serving in the 21st century is more challenging than ever:
- Issues are inter-connected and more prone to shocks
- Social media transforms the issues and contexts
- Public servants deal with volatility and complexity
- An increasing number of public policy issues exceed the capacity of government acting alone.
These changes are transforming the role of governments and their relationship with citizens and society. Public servants feel the tensions but most public organisations are not yet ready for the challenges that lie ahead. As a result, governments are frequently left in a reactive position. There is a need to re-think public administration as a discipline and as a domain of practice. This is why the NS Project was conceived.1
Public institutions and public organisations must adapt to changing needs and circumstances in order to sustain the trust between government and citizens. There is a need to preserve practices of enduring values, learn from reform efforts and acquire new capabilities. In the end, old and new capabilities must blend in a manner that takes into account the circumstances unique to each country.2
Part of the difficulty facing public organisations today comes from the industrial-era concepts that conventional public administration is rooted in. These are derived from scientific management, with solutions based on narrowing down and “fixing” parts of the system. As a result, public administration has internalised many forms of segregation (between politics and policy, policy decision and implementation, policy development and service delivery, etc.). Public administration relies on analysis. It values productivity and efficiency.
NS is an invitation to go beyond these conventional approaches. It values the effectiveness of the whole rather than the efficiency of its parts. It focuses on societal results. It proposes that the solutions to complex issues can only come about as a result of synthesis — the capacity to recombine in new ways the roles of government, citizens and society, and the relationships that bind them together.
The NS Framework appears simple at first glance. However, it has several layers of meaning that are uncovered progressively.
In 2010 and 2011, Singapore’s Civil Service College (CSC) participated in the NS Project, a multi-country research project that initially involved six countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United Kingdom)3. In Singapore, this work informed public sector dialogues on pertinent issues, including public engagement and co-creation. Acknowledging the need to test the NS Framework in a diversity of domains of practice, the NS Lab was born from a shared commitment to expand the conversation and test the ideas in practice. And so the design work began.
The first NS Lab was designed to encourage open exchange, experimentation and learning. It challenged participants to continually move between exploring concepts, learning from practice and integrating findings.
A gap week between sessions was intentionally included to allow participants to test ideas in practice, reflect on what was relevant in each respective context and integrate what they learnt in their search for solutions in their live case before returning for the next session.
In practice, the one-week break allowed participants time to consolidate and integrate their learning.
Seventeen director- and senior director-level public officers — the Master Practitioners — attended the first NS Lab, held in Singapore in early 2013. Some were from central ministries, while others were from line ministries and statutory boards supporting the ministries.4 This mix brought a diversity of perspectives to the NS Lab sessions, and helped to ensure that the relevance of the NS Framework was tested across a broad range of domains.
Apart from their skills and experience, each participant also came to the NS Lab with a real-life case — a challenging and unresolved issue that the participant was committed to addressing in his current position. Participants were encouraged to return to their cases after each session, changing and refining their proposed approaches as the conversation progressed.
This approach proved to be a very powerful element of the NS Lab design. As the cases evolved, participants quickly became very skillful at using the NS Framework, which helped them to look at their challenges in new ways and through different lenses. They were able to re-position their issues on a broader level, and each one of them identified other stakeholders who needed to be brought in as partners. Most of them discovered that it was possible to encourage the contributions of citizens, users of government services, their families and their communities while preserving and even enhancing the stewardship role of government.
Playing the role of Master Weaver, I drew lessons learned from other countries from the NS key findings. The collective wealth of experience was used to tease out solutions from the participants. The key assets for an NS Lab are in the room.
As Master Weaver, my role was to:
- Help participants weave the key threads to create a powerful tapestry: a “new synthesis” of public administration adapted to a particular (in this case, Singapore’s) context and circumstances.
- Summarise key findings after each session, laying the foundation for the next session while allowing for different approaches. In Singapore, each session was unique and specifically designed to support the needs of the participants at that time.
- Enrich the exploratory discussion by sharing ideas and insights about what is being done elsewhere, or what could be done to broaden the range of choices open to government. There is no one right way, but instead multiple ways of achieving public policy outcomes. Often, different approaches must operate concurrently in order to bring about desired outcomes.
Post-NS Lab feedback by participants indicated that the role of the Master Weaver was a key factor in the success of the sessions.
Growing Towards A New Synthesis
The first NS Lab was designed with practitioners in mind. It was learner-centric, with improvements throughout the process to ensure that each session met the needs of the group. It brought senior practitioners from many fields of public sector practice into conversation and, together with me, they examined how the NS Framework can be used to open up a broader space of possibility with which to face the complex issues of the day, and to solve problems that conventional approaches could not. They shared experiences and acquired new insights about what is being done and what can be done to prepare public institutions and organisations to be fit for the time and to build a resilient society able to adapt to the changing landscape of the 21st century. In the process, they crafted an emerging narrative of change to provide coherence to their transformation efforts. They framed a New Synthesis for Singapore.
The success of the NS Lab was first and foremost due to the commitment of the Master Practitioners, who were not only active contributors during each session, but invested time and effort in updating their cases during the gap week. Many of them took the extra step to share what they learned on their return to their agencies.
NS is an ongoing journey of discovery. No institution is fit for all time. The ongoing development of each institution involves adapting to changing circumstances and evolving with the society that they have a mission to serve. Countries with public institutions able to meet the needs of their time have a greater capacity for adaptation. They will be best positioned to influence events in their favour and to prosper under all circumstances. There is every reason to believe that Singapore will be among them.
And so the journey continues.
The NS Lab Sessions
The first three sessions were designed to explore the implications of some of the key underlying concepts of the NS Framework in practice. This was done by drawing from international examples, inviting local resource people who had led ambitious, transformative reforms, and working as a group to explore solutions to the cases.
NS Lab: The Journey Continues
For the next phase of the NS Project, new tools developed from the first Lab in 2013 were tested; the conversations were also brought to different levels of public officers. In the first quarter of 2014, we conducted 2 new NS Labs for Singapore public service officers, one at the Middle Manager level and the other for people at the most senior levels. Both workshops generated new discoveries and possibilities.
The NS Labs conducted in 2013 and 2014 are a powerful reminder of the need to continue to explore the New Frontiers of Public Administration, to prepare government fit for the challenges of its time and to build public organisations and public institutions with the capacity to adapt to changing needs, circumstances and citizens expectations. The Civil Service College plans to continue to explore the ideas generated from the 2013 and 2014 NS Labs as the New Synthesis Journey continues, for there is no end to our search for good government and good governance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An international expert in governance and public sector reforms, the Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Civil Service College, Singapore, where she works closely with public sector leaders and managers to prepare the Government to be fit and resilient for the future through research and practitioners’ workshops. Madame Bourgon is also President of Public Governance International (PGI), President Emeritus of the Canada School of Public Service, project leader of the New Synthesis Project and author of A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century.
- Jocelyne Bourgon, A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century, (Montreal, Quebec and Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).
- Jocelyne Bourgon, “New Synthesis Laboratory for Master Practitioners: Moving Ideas into Action-Key Findings”, May 2013, CSC working paper, http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/New-Synthesis-Laboratory-for-Master-Practitioners-Moving-Ideas-to-Action-Key-Findings.aspx
- The key findings resulting from the NS Project were captured in the book A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Serving in the 21st Century which was launched in Singapore in October 2011.
- Participating agencies included the Public Service Division, Ministry of Finance; the ministries of Communications and Information, Education, Home Affairs, Social and Family Development, and the Environment and Water Resources; and statutory boards the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, National Environment Agency, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Public Utilities Board, National Parks Board, Land Transport Authority, and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.