Digital Issue 11, Oct 2023
A perennial challenge governments face is that they grow bloated and more complex over time. With more complexity comes more organisational layers and bureaucracy. Part of this growth comes from governments having to address new needs that they have not been organised for in the past. An example of this is public engagement, which has become much more important in recent years, and—because of the cadence of social media—places more demands on every agency in the Public Service, even on weekends.
The public sector has also to deal with issues that have become much more cross-boundary in nature, even as our public agencies are still structured according to prior paradigms. For instance, economics used to be an imperative in itself for governments. Now, economic thinking must take into account other considerations such as sustainability issues, societal concerns, and security issues as well. All this means there are many more trade-offs to be made for any decision. This leads to a greater need to coordinate across conventional Ministry lines, each of which have their own reporting structures and specialised needs.
Organisational bloat renders it increasingly difficult to make good, thoughtful and timely decisions. It also increases the distance between policy and operations: it becomes harder for those in operations to feed back useful changes to those making policies, and for policymakers to understand frontline work, worsening the implementation gap.
How we have organised ourselves in the past is no longer fit for the future, or even the present. We need to consolidate and reconsider the way we do things.
How we have organised ourselves in the past is no longer fit for the future, or even the present.
The challenge of resource discipline
One way of thinking about this issue could come from looking outside the public sector, to the tech sector. Both sectors tend to go on a hiring spree when a crisis takes place and there are suddenly new things to be done. Over the past year, there has been news about how the Big Tech giants have been laying off thousands of staff. It is worth noting that despite this shedding, their tech products are still working as usual. The truth is that the big tech companies dramatically overhired during the pandemic—which was also a period of uplift for them. They built up a lot of fat in the system which now they are taking the opportunity to shed, while their competitors are all doing so.
One exception to this trend has been Apple, which has not laid off as many people but also did not overhire during the pandemic, even though demand was high. They remained steady in aligning with their priorities and continue to do so. Apple has impressive discipline, both in terms of their hiring but also in managing their attrition. Some of their teams are very small, including key design teams, and those handling their supply chain management. I am told only two or three people manage Apple’s entire supply chain, but these figures have over 20 years of experience. Clearly, they are competent, well compensated, and know the market really well. But it is not only a matter of their talent and experience. It is also because Apple has strong relationships with their supply chain ecosystem. What they have done over time is to streamline and simplify their supply chain and also helped build up the capacity of their manufacturing partners.
Might this have parallels with what we do in the Public Service? It may be that we will need to move towards a more top-heavy approach, counting on a smaller pool of more specialist expertise and experience, rather than the traditional, bottom-heavy pyramid approach of organising the public sector.
This not just a simple matter of rethinking our organisation structure and getting experienced people to fill in the blanks. Instead, we should look at our entire value chain and figure out which parts we can simplify, and which parts to automate, so people can function more effectively. With the tools now available, we can streamline many processes to require far less grunt work, which traditionally takes up a lot of time and manpower. We can already use AI tools to transcribe meetings. We can use Chat-GPT to summarise notes. We could have different ways of working so that we do not need so many meetings—which right now in the Public Service can involve dozens or hundreds of people.
As an organisation, Singapore’s military has had to rethink their fundamental way of doing things, because it is an existential problem for them. In the past, armed forces were a brute force game. But given our manpower constraints, they have had to make do with smaller sections and teams. It requires thinking about new weapons, new tactics, and more coordination and complementarity across the different forces, such as through combined arms. Because the armed forces have a singular goal, which is defence, it is able to align everyone to this priority, and innovate towards it. How might we translate this thinking to the public sector?
It may be that we will need to move towards a more top-heavy approach rather than the traditional, bottom-heavy pyramid approach of organising the public sector.
Enabling productivity by changing the rules
We in government tend to prefer to change our operations to suit our policies, rather than changing the policies themselves to make operations simpler. There are many good reasons why we may not want to change a policy too readily. But in many cases, the policies can be unnecessarily rigid or specific. Over time, this can lead to tremendous inefficiency in operations.
An example of this is the way we deal with security. We develop a complex set of rules for everyone to follow, and then we create a whole industry to check for compliance. It becomes easier to do an audit rather than to trust the employee. But there are now better ways to ensure security if we adopted a policy of trust, such as with deliberate penetration testing, for example. Tech companies automate a lot of their processes, even using systems to check code for vulnerabilities by default.
Many widely available tools and approaches already meet 90% of our work needs. Instead of customising our own system to fit all our specialised requirements, we could adjust our policies to allow most of those needs to be fulfilled by readymade platforms, and then taking care of the last 10% or so separately. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, nor do we have to compromise our particular needs.
For instance, we are trying to shift out the sensitive elements of our Government work laptops, leaving a machine that is not commingled with sensitive data. We may no longer need a VPN to use them, and we would be able to enable public officers to enjoy the full functionality of the web. This would liberate public officers to use more commercial software services and applications to their fullest potential.
Technology has so far created much more work for us than saved it. The next step is to use its potential to streamline and speed up our work. Once we free up our policies to enable broader adoption of widely available new tools and processes, we can unleash a new wave of innovation in the public sector.
We do not yet know what the full possibilities are for saving resources or extracting the best public value out of them. What we will want to do is encourage our public officers to experiment and try things out. Innovation will come from a broad base of active users, especially officers at the lower levels or on the front lines. For technical power users in specific agencies, we can customise domain-specific innovations: using machine learning to summarise judgements for the Attorney-General’s Chambers, for instance, or to draw up contracts.
Freeing up time to think differently
In the face of a digital overload and decision deluge, the tendency is to fall back to habit, past experience and instinct in making decisions. There is little time to ask more than shallow questions. In the long run, this leads to suboptimal judgements. Being more efficient in our work processes is not just about spinning our wheels faster. It should also free up more time for us to think about whether we need to do different things.
For instance, now that the COVID situation is allowing us back into our workplaces, we should be mindful that when we bring people back into the office, there has to be a reason other than for formal meetings that could have been resolved by email. These are things we can and should reduce. Nor should we just blindly follow a formula of having three days in and two days out. Instead, we should be deliberate in using that office time to do things that are best done in person, face-to-face, such as brainstorming or team building.
In his book Deep Work, American author and computer scientist Cal Newport writes about a movement in workplaces to have focus days, where staff turn off their computers to think and work. He writes about remote organisations which are good at protecting their staff’s private time. Performance is still judged by outcomes, but there is a cadence to work where say one works two months remotely and then comes together with colleagues for two weeks. We should be thinking about how best to allow our officers the time and space to do deep work.
Workload bloat and organisational complexity create bottlenecks, imposes costs, and diffuses responsibility. All these take time and effort away from other important priorities. The benefit of having a lean and mean yet dedicated outfit is that you can do a lot more of what matters.
Being more efficient in our work processes is not just about spinning our wheels faster. It should also free up more time for us to think.
Getting the balance right while delivering great service
It is one thing to encourage public agencies to be more purposeful and innovative in their uses of resources, including their officers’ time. It is quite another when changing priorities mean we may have to start dropping programmes and taking away resources. This will be a difficult but necessary pill to swallow.
But this will not mean that we need compromise on doing our jobs to serve the public well. Take the example of DBS bank, which has had to grapple with significant restructuring—they have been closing many of their bank branches and embracing online and digital services. Each bank branch closed is a pain point for the public they serve, who are accustomed to physical counters. But the bank has adopted a good middle ground, in which they close or shrink some branches, but put in place virtual counters with actual persons serving customers on screen. And you can carry out almost all the transactions you need to do in person, even though the services are being provided in a more centralised and resource-effective manner.
The irony is that in wanting to overprovide for important needs, such as caring for the elderly or vulnerable, we sometimes fall back on the easy but high-cost solutions (such as having many more physical counters) that turn out to be less sustainable in the long run. In fact, there could be more efficient ways to do the job, using technology or more simplified processes, that result in better services—if only we sought out the opportunities to do so.
In wanting to overprovide for important needs, we sometimes fall back on solutions that turn out to be less sustainable in the long run.
Staying agile in leaner times
We no longer operate in an era of plenty. But even if we had all the resources in the world, organisational and workload growth can lead to bloat that actually holds us back from doing as well as we otherwise could have.
The world has changed but the way we organise ourselves has not. We must be more judicious in our choice of where to devote increasingly scarce resources, including our officers’ precious time. And that means conserving the bandwidth needed to process data, consider different ideas and prioritise needs carefully—to be thoughtfully pragmatic about what truly matters. This is by no means an easy challenge in an age where competing demands have proliferated and it is no longer fully clear where the trade-offs lie.
We will need to think carefully about how we can be more strategic in framing our priorities, rather than being reactive to every new fire that comes along. We should free up our heads and hands to do so, by adopting better discipline in our workflows, learning to do well with less, being more agile with policies and making the most of available new tools. If not, we risk having our tried and tested ways of doing things today being overwhelmed by the demands of the future.