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The Value of Values in the Singapore Public Service

The transformation of the Public Service must also involve thoughtful reinvigoration of the values it stands for.

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Why Values Matter in Public Service

As individuals, we all have our own personal values that guide our decisions and shape the way we live our lives. Organisations have values as well: core beliefs and principles that serve to guide standards of behaviour, and reflect their identity and culture.

The core purpose of the Singapore Public Service is defined by service to the nation and its people. It follows that the practice of good governance calls for the right set of values to be cultivated and upheld across the Service. Our core values of Integrity, Service and Excellence were distilled and espoused in 2003, after an extensive service-wide process.1 They provide a compass for our standards of behaviour as public servants, and inform the way we think about our day-to-day work, such as policy analysis and design, service delivery, or public engagement. Our values prompt us to do our duty honestly without fear or favour, to go the extra mile to help fellow citizens, and to be the best that we can be. To be part of an organisation that prizes these values is also a source of pride and belonging for our public officers. Our commitment to these values has also undoubtedly contributed to the Singapore Public Service’s international reputation for good governance.2


Values are not just words; values are what we live by. They are about the causes that we champion and the people we fight for.

—US Secretary of State John Kerry


We serve a public that is more diverse than before. They are more educated, with more complex needs and higher expectations of government, in an operating environment that is also becoming more dynamic. To meet these and other new challenges, the Public Service must enhance its effectiveness, public value, citizen-centric service delivery, policy design and public engagement. But just as critically, public officers need to be steeped in the right set of values that will underpin the responsibilities we have to the citizens we serve, and provide a basis for us to make the difficult and complex decisions we sometimes have to make in order to serve the common good. Our core values help us manage trade-offs across different interest groups, interpret policies and make judgement calls on grey areas — decisions that frontline officers are increasingly expected to make. Without clear values to guide these decisions, our jobs risk becoming mechanical and rule-bound, and we may seize up when faced with ambiguous situations that call for tough choices based not only on rational calculations but on what we stand for as a Public Service.


Inculcating and strengthening values goes far beyond rules and guidelines. Values cannot become entrenched in our public officers and agencies by fiat alone — they must be brought to life.

Where the Singapore Public Service Stands

Like many other countries, the Singapore Public Service has thus far sought to enforce its values through a compliance-based approach: prescribing rules and guidelines that outline acceptable behaviour, along with the consequences for flouting these rules. Hence, our Public Service values are embedded in Government Instruction Manuals (IMs) as well as the recently updated Civil Service Code of Conduct which lays down the behaviour expected of officers.

But inculcating and strengthening values goes far beyond rules and guidelines. Values cannot become entrenched in our public officers and agencies by fiat alone — they must be brought to life to function as more than rules, a statement, mission or words on a wall. It is not enough for officers to be able to regurgitate what our core values are or mean. Instead, we need to ensure that operating mind-sets, practices and daily work habits throughout the organisation are consistent with these values. This takes systematic, deliberate effort.

Over the past year, the Public Service Division (PSD) has studied how best to guide our agencies in their efforts to communicate and inculcate their values, and to help leaders at every level build a stronger work culture oriented to these values. Research by PSD3 reveals several insights into the state of values in the Singapore Public Service:

  1. The latest survey of the values and attitudes of public officers shows strong endorsement and acknowledgement of the Public Service’s core values. This indicates that our three core values continue to remain relevant in today’s governance context.

  2. There is no dissonance between the core Public Service values of Integrity, Service and Excellence, and agencies’ more specific sets of values, which take into consideration each agency’s unique challenges. In fact, our agencies have very effectively integrated the overarching core values into their own agency-specific sets of values.

  3. Some agencies are clearly ahead of others in their efforts to instill values in their officers. These agencies, including the Singapore Prison Service, the Ministry of Education and the Singapore Armed Forces, have much to teach other agencies. As a central agency, PSD is well placed to consolidate, facilitate and disseminate the best practices of these agencies to build a strong values-based culture across the public sector.

How do our Public Service Agencies Cultivate Values?

The PSD study suggests that Singapore’s public sector agencies use a wide variety of approaches to instill organisational values:

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Upholding Values: Some Approaches

What are some of the best practices in building a values-based Public Service culture? PSD’s research so far suggests four organisational building blocks to strengthening values.

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Figure 1. Four steps to build values-driven organisations.

Step 1: Define and Articulate Values

Values are more effectively instilled in an organisation when they are clearly articulated and well accepted. New values are nurtured, or existing ones refreshed, by involving staff in processes that help build shared understanding, consensus and ownership of these values. Staff are much more likely to live out values that they can grasp and embrace, and that are meaningful to them, on a day-to-day basis.

Conversations between staff about the things that really matter to them lie at the heart of defining and articulating values. There is no one right way to structure such conversations: a variety of platforms ranging from townhall sessions, road-shows, random conversations, surveys, tea sessions and even online platforms can be used to engage staff.4

Step 2: Translate Values into Expected Behaviours and Actions

Simply spelling out our values is not enough. They have to be expressed and embodied in practical, visible ways, in behaviours and actions. It is important to help staff translate each value into expected or unacceptable behaviours, and to create awareness of these behaviours through different means. This helps to ensure that officers at every level not only understand the organisation’s values, but are equipped to behave consistently with those values in every aspect of work.

There are many ways to bring values to life: from simple behavioural statements, videos and case studies to more interactive platforms like games and role-playing. Stories or vignettes that reflect real, agency-specific values are especially effective: they can create a sense of connection to values by reflecting real dilemmas rather than abstract concepts. Stories are also useful as a means of demonstrating “negative” examples, such as when officers are not “living out” the organisation’s values, by highlighting wrong behaviours in a manner that is not overly patronising or moralistic. Storytelling also encourages staff to reflect on their own experiences, helping them to understand how their attitudes and behaviours may contribute to a values-driven culture in their workplace.

Successful organisations often use a combination of these approaches. However, it is important that the communication platforms used are the most appropriate and effective for the organisation. Communication on values cannot be one-off or one-way. Any communication on values should be consistent, regular and constantly refreshed, so that espoused values continue to resonate with staff.


Stories create a sense of connection to values by reflecting real dilemmas rather than abstract concepts.

Step 3: Weave Values into Organisational Processes

Values should be well integrated into organisational processes, particularly HR processes such as recruitment, induction and performance management. These milestones are critical opportunities to strengthen and sustain values by recognising and reinforcing expected behaviours.

The Singapore Public Service already includes values as part of its performance appraisal system: public officers’ career prospects depend in part on their ability to demonstrate personal integrity, commitment to the values of Public Service and a sense of national interest. Scholarship applicants are also screened for clear evidence that candidates identify with and are motivated by Public Service core values.

More can still be done. For recruitment, job advertisements could emphasise the importance of values-fit, beyond the specific skills required for the position. Scenario-based interview questions could also help assess a potential hire’s value system. For example, candidates could be asked to discuss a time when their integrity was challenged. There are other less conventional approaches: US retail firm Zappos is known to offer new hires an additional US$2,000, on top of their salary, if the employee quits in the first week of work. Only 2 to 3 per cent of new hires have ever taken up this offer — which is the CEO’s way of sieving out new employees who may be motivated by the wrong set of values.

Induction is an important way to engage new hires, although many agencies may not be making the most of the opportunity to engage new staff on values. In fact, induction courses typically focus much more on cognitive content (“What are the facts and figures, and who are the people you need to know, in order to get your job done well?”) than on “softer” issues such as the organisation’s values. In the absence of stronger interventions, new hires may gravitate quickly towards other norms of behaviour — which may not necessarily reflect the organisation’s desired values.

Organisations that place a high emphasis on values take their induction (or “onboarding”) efforts seriously. Such activities may include tea sessions for new hires to discuss what their organisations stand for, or video presentations on appropriate ways to deal with issues in line with stated values. Still others provide formal induction curriculum packages which include information on organisational values and how they relate to the individual employee.

Critically, appraisal and performance-management processes should be aligned to espoused values. Computer firm Dell, for instance, holds employees accountable for acting according to the values codified in the “Soul of Dell” — with half of their performance based on 360-degree feedback.

Step 4: Sustain Values Implementation

To ensure that organisations abide by their values in the long term, it is also important to build structures and mechanisms to periodically assess and recognise values alignment and identify areas for improvement or intervention where necessary. Organisations like Danish pharmaceutical Novo Nordisk even designate facilitators to conduct “values audits” of various business units, reporting semi-annually to the CEO on the state of values across the company.

Some best practices relating to values alignment include recognising and celebrating values-aligned behaviours at the individual, work-unit or corporate levels. Values-in-action awards can help to reinforce desired behaviours, while regular feedback, organisational surveys (such as the bi-annual Values and Attitudes survey administered by PSD), exit surveys and compliance indicators (e.g. disciplinary cases) could all be used to assess the level of alignment to values on a regular basis.

What can Managers Do to Cultivate a Values-based Work Culture?

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Leadership is Fundamental

Leadership is fundamental to developing a strong culture of values in any organisation. Leaders who embody organisational values have a huge positive impact on whether the rest of the organisation lives out those values. As organisational role models, the actions of leaders send a more powerful message about acceptable behaviours than any published policies or statements. Conversely, leaders who demonstrate behaviours that run counter to espoused values breed cynicism, resentment, alienation and may even encourage staff to follow suit, to the detriment of the organisation.

While the commitment by top management to articulate values and endorse policies and programmes throughout the organisation is vital, leaders and managers at all levels of the organisation must “walk the talk” to model exemplary conduct and practices aligned to values, and to encourage these in their staff. While this often means recognising or rewarding activity that is consistent with values, it also means that they must be ready to challenge behaviours and actions that are not aligned to values, with clear processes in place to do this firmly, fairly and transparently.

The Public Service is set to become more diverse with time, as officers from different generations, backgrounds, worldviews and norms join the service. While this diversity can be a strength, since it should better reflect a dynamic and expanding Singaporean society, the need to inculcate a shared set of meaningful core values becomes all the more vital. Without strong, consistently values-oriented workplaces across government, we risk eroding the Public Service’s focus on its core purpose, in the process alienating both our officers and the public we serve.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Keith Tan is Senior Director, PS21 Office, Public Service Division. He is concurrently Institute Director, Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. He previously served with the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), where he was Director of MTI’s Economics and Strategy Division; he was later Director of its Foreign Economic Policy Division and concurrently Singapore’s chief negotiator for the European Union–Singapore Free Trade Agreement. He holds a Master’s degree in Management from the Peter Drucker School of Management, Claremont Graduate University.

Ghalpanah Thangaraju is currently Manager in the PS21 Office, Public Service Division. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.


NOTES

  1. The culmination of an effort to develop the Public Service identity and a sense of shared ethos, the tagline “The Singapore Public Service: Integrity, Service, Excellence” and its associated values were identified in 2003 after a series of service-wide surveys, focus group discussions with public officers, interviews with senior and retired officers, and a study of agency-specific values. The core values are reflected on all Public Service cards and government websites as well as the Public Service Pledge, recited at the annual Public Service Week since 2008.
  2. Singapore ranks highly for governance effectiveness and regulatory quality in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. Singapore is also ranked among the five least corrupt nations in Transparency International Report.
  3. Two separate rounds of focus group discussions have been conducted thus far. The first round of 16 focus group discussions conducted between November 2011 and January 2012 involved 118 participants from 48 agencies. These were conducted as part of milestone programmes and were used to explore what our Public Service values of Integrity, Service and Excellence meant to members of the Public Service and how these values were manifested. A second round of six focus group discussions was conducted with human resources and organisational development representatives from 37 agencies, to find out about the values practices of the various agencies.
  4. In 2003, IBM successfully initiated values conversations with its staff through a global ValuesJam as part of its efforts to review and refresh its corporate values. Conducted over 3 days, IBM’s ValuesJam saw 50,000 IBMers from all over the world participate, with 10,000 comments posted online. Although the online conversation was dominated by overwhelmingly negative comments in the initial phase, it eventually led to constructive comments that ultimately resulted in a new set of values for IBM. Through it all, committed and visible leadership by CEO Sam Palmisano was critical in ensuring the success of the ValuesJam.

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