What the Private Sector Has Learnt about Public Engagement

What the Private Sector Has Learnt about Public Engagement

What the Private Sector Has Learnt about Public Engagement

An Era of Greater Social Engagement

Rising public expectations have prompted Singapore’s leading senior civil servants to call for a civil service that is more engaged, more responsive and more inclusive. Several major speeches by current and former senior civil servants in the past year have addressed this shift, including an address by the Chairman of the Public Service Commission to its scholars in London (5 November 2011),1 the Inaugural Lecture of the Chief Secretary Forum in Kuala Lumpur (30 November 2011) by current Head of Civil Service Mr Peter Ong,2 and former Head of Civil Service Mr Peter Ho’s speech at the Singapore Perspectives Conference in 2012 (16 January 2012).3 All three called for more engagement from the Civil Service, using descriptors such as “open and responsive”, “inclusive”, and having “more empathy”.

Parallels can be drawn with the business world, which has undergone a similar inflection in consumer engagement. In the mid-1990s, the spotlight focused on how consumers’ values, attitudes and behaviours affected their purchasing decisions, in turn driving revenue and profit growth for companies. This revolution has led to benefits for both consumers and companies: consumers, by and large, have enjoyed a growing wealth of choices about how, where and what they buy, and how much they pay. In turn, by targeting specific customer segments, some firms have benefited from reducing the cost of their marketing; others have benefited from perfecting the set of market research tools that help companies target the right customers, both offline and online.

What Can Be Done?

In light of how quickly social media can change the public’s perception of an organisation, listening to what customers need and want is no longer optional. We are moving towards an economy where it is critical to engage the hearts and minds of everyone: from employees to customers to shareholders.

The experience of the private sector suggests that any organisation seeking to raise its level of engagement and responsiveness needs to do three things well — consult, deliberate, and communicate:

  • Consult stakeholders constantly (not just after a strategy paper has already been drafted);
  • Strengthen critical thinking capabilities within the organisation in order to better deliberate diverse inputs;
  • Communicate by first understanding the potential emotional response of stakeholders.

For the Civil Service, how might this transformation be implemented, and what are some relevant lessons from the business world?

Consult Constantly

Great companies and organisations build an emotional connection with their stakeholders. Some management theories hold that such emotional bonds are best felt when companies roll out products and services that customers need or want. However, how these bonds are built through frequent customer engagement is less well covered in business literature. Nevertheless, three business trends in the area of customer engagement are significant: Consultations and customer inputs are becoming more frequent, coming through a greater diversity of channels, and touching a wider range of employees.

  1. The frequency of customer interaction has increased. In the 1990s and 2000s, the management trend of the day was “customer service” and listening to customer feedback. Connecting with the customer in those days typically comprised one piece of “feedback” by the customer followed by a single “response” from the company. The commonplace use of social media and other online modes of connection has moved us to a more iterative, frequent and conversational mode of connection with customers (although many companies are still operating in the feedback-response mode).

  2. The methods utilised to extract customer viewpoints and gain insight into their behaviour have become far more sophisticated. Beyond variations of traditional marketing research tools (i.e. questionnaires, surveys, forums) that many companies employ to compile market data, social media is opening up communication channels and information flows between customers and businesses. This gives businesses a broader and more immediate spectrum of customer responses. Some businesses even observe consumers in their own homes in order to see and hear first-hand accounts of unmet needs as part of their product development cycle. The equivalent in the Civil Service might be, for example, regular first-hand visits to see how public policies directly affect different income-level households.

  3. Customer touchpoints are moving deeper into an organisation, and are no longer limited to “frontline” staff. While the service frontline continues to be the primary interface with customers, non-frontline staff are also increasingly called on to engage customers. Citibank, for example, now trains multiple departments to be client-facing, from the relationship manager (expected), to the call centre (expected), to the treasury expert (not usually expected), to the cash management officer (used to be unexpected). Going the extra mile to address customer concerns across the organisation helps recover and maintain good customer relationships. Companies see this as critical to their growth strategy because subsequent touchpoints beyond the “frontline” become opportunities to build a longer relationship with, sell more to, or to get more feedback from customers. This interaction allows for a richer input of ideas or criticism, feeding the improvement process to help deliver even better products and services. In short, deep customer engagement is key to organisational growth and even survival.

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Deliberate Well

Training staff in critical thinking is a necessary step to ensure that an organisation has the capability to process an increased set of inputs. This is not a skill that is explicitly talked about or trained for in the workplace; yet, it is the most important skill in a knowledge-based organisation. In particular, both quantitative and qualitative critical thinking skills are required for decision-making.

On the quantitative side, training programmes may explicitly cultivate advanced analytical skills: for example, some professional services companies put entry-level analysts through a two-week training programme that focuses on modelling in Microsoft Excel, interpretation of basic statistical data, the ability to perform basic regressions to establish correlation, and the manipulation of large amounts of data in Microsoft Access to extract useful insights.

Companies also use statistics-based methods, such as cluster analysis and conjoint analysis, to understand customer segments and their preferred trade-offs. In conjoint analysis, features of a product are presented to a consumer, who is asked a set of 12 to 30 questions and to make specific trade-offs. Participants may be asked to rank or prioritise their answers. An analysis of the resulting data provides businesses with a better understanding of consumer views on the relative value of different product features.

Training in qualitative critical thinking can be achieved through classroom training or through the use of the case method. Specific critical thinking skills might include logic, evidence and data, while softer skills include adopting appropriate attitudes of openness and humility (accepting that other views could be right). Without these skills, an officer may face a barrage of suggestions and not be equipped to discern their quality and relevance. Even with critical thinking now incorporated into the university and school curriculum, there is still an advantage to training workplace-related critical thinking explicitly. Such training would focus on workplace-specific scenarios, the dimensions of critical thinking that decision-making processes typically entail, and the application of critical thinking to each agency’s policy or operational area of purview.

Communicate Well

To maintain a feedback loop with the stakeholders, there needs to be a very conscious effort to communicate back to stakeholders, which many companies fail to do adequately. Companies run the risk of coming across as being defensive if they reject a suggestion; or, non-inclusive if they take on a suggestion which ends up having negative effects on other stakeholders.

The Civil Service could consider erring on the side of more rather than fewer communications. Regular, interactive, open and non-defensive communications help to strengthen trust and build confidence. Public servants perhaps sometimes worry that communications open the door to greater criticism. It might. In the new social climate, civil servants would need to feel more comfortable in receiving and dealing with feedback, rather than fear negative repercussions or dismiss the public’s ability to provide good ideas.

In addition, the style of communication may need to change. Rational logic and authority used to be sufficient for a positive interaction with the public; however, the complexities of policymaking mean that more nuanced approaches are expected. One indicative trend: client-servicing firms hiring team members with different communication styles. For example, strategy consulting firms hire finance, engineering, as well as liberal arts graduates for their client-facing project teams.

One way to strengthen the ability to consult, deliberate, and communicate well is to build a team with a diversity of skills. In this regard, the Civil Service seems to be moving in the right direction, starting with its leadership team.4


In summary, the Civil Service would be closer to its goal of increased engagement if policymakers can answer these three key questions:

  1. Who are the groups of stakeholders in this policy and how can we best gather their views?
  2. Which points of view should the new policy support or not support, and why?
  3. How will we communicate the outcome to each group of stakeholders?

Crucially, while the principles of consulting, deliberating and communicating well will stand most organisations in good stead as they seek to improve the quality of their public engagement, the success and value of such efforts come down to whether there has been a fundamental shift in the mindset about how the organisation interacts with the public.

In the business world, the explosion in customer engagement activity arose from the common understanding that it is the customers who make the company. In the public sector, a parallel perspective is that it is the people, and not the policies, that make Singapore. This belief, however stated, has to underpin the shift to engagement, openness and responsiveness.


Chng Hak-Peng is Managing Partner at Devaro Partners, a leadership advisory firm that coaches business leaders on strategy development and implementation. He was with the Singapore Civil Service from 1998 to 2002.


  1. SingSem 2011, “What is the New Normal for the Public Service?” by Mr Eddie Teo, Chairman PSC, on Saturday 5 November 2011 in London. Available at:
  2. Inaugural Lecture, Chief Secretary Forum (Kuala Lumpur), “Building an Adaptive Service” by Mr Peter Ong, Head, Civil Service, Republic of Singapore, 30 November 2011. Available at:
  3. “Panel III Politics: A New Paradigm?”, in Report on Singapore Perspectives 2012 Singapore Inclusive: Bridging Divides, eds, Chan Hoong Leong and Soon Hock Kang (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies, 2012), 8. Available at:
  4. For instance, at the leadership level: ten years ago, more than 50% of permanent secretaries (as of January 2002) studied Engineering or Science as their undergraduate major. As of January 2012, 55% of permanent secretaries have an arts or social science background, including one with a degree in English. Based on a manual count from publicly available information.

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