ETHOS Issue 04, Apr 2008
Public services worldwide have undergone a remarkable revolution. Borrowing management approaches and performance tools from the private sector, public agencies in most developed nations—including Singapore, with its PS21 movement—have learnt how to operate as leaner, more responsive and more service-oriented outfits. The infocomm revolution of the past decade was a godsend in a period of transition in public service delivery: it providing the technical means to deliver a wide range of services quickly, efficiently and conveniently, and unlocked the potential of deep but often unwieldy government databases, resources and processes. Conventional public sector traits—such as ubiquitous reach and relevance, information wealth, security, resilience and intrinsic credibility—have been demonstrated as vital strengths in a newly connected world. Even after the dot.com bust, government websites and online services continue to thrive—indeed, much more is now being asked of public services by increasingly informed and net-savvy citizens and businesses.
However, there is now a sense that the low-hanging fruits of public service reform and efficiency gains have been mostly identified, if not harvested. Is it enough to make public service delivery and government transactions ever faster, less onerous or more courteous? Professor B. Guy Peters argues that the relationship between public servants and the citizens they serve needs to be re-examined and perhaps restated. Ng Wee Wei, from the Accenture consultancy group, proposes outcome targets for public service based on the delivery of social value, and The Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon from Canada believes that it is time for governments to define a fundamentally new model of public service that matches today’s complex challenges which cut across many different sectors of activity.
There is some consensus that the next phase of development for public service delivery will involve much less rigid boundaries between active agents, and much more collaboration between stakeholders within and outside government. The Managing for Excellence office in Singapore’s Ministry of Finance suggests a natural curve of public sector evolution towards greater network activity and integration, as trust, confidence and competence grow and demand for Whole-of-Government solutions mounts. Bold private-public collaborations in Singapore, such as the Land Transport Authority’s OneMotoring portal, have already yielded promising results in this direction, while Australia’s Department of Human Services points to the transformative potential of integration on a large scale across different service operations.
Technology will continue to be an important facilitator and enabler of change. While many of Singapore’s e-Government initiatives are already at the forefront of global best practice, the Infocomm Development Authority is charting new trajectories for e-Government as technological possibilities and user readiness advance. Yet the pleasant irony of e-Government is this: far from leading to yet more faceless, robotic and rigid public service delivery, the ICT revolution has freed up many service units to become even more personalised, specialised and flexible in response. Innovations at agencies such as Singapore’s Central Provident Fund Board and the Ministry of Manpower have returned the human touch to public services in a way that would have been well nigh impossible before. There are promising times ahead for the public sector, as it evolves beyond userfriendly transactions to new forms of productive engagement between government and society at large.
As we move into ever more turbulent and unpredictable waters, it is clear that governance-as-usual will no longer suffice. Head of Civil Service Peter Ho underlines key new capabilities that the Public Service will have to develop, in an operating environment which challenges us to anticipate the unprecedented and invent our own future. In this regard, the insights of veteran public servant Lam Chuan Leong on managing uncertainty and risk in government are most timely and pertinent.
To discuss contemporary issues in governance, our Ethos Roundtable brings together three distinguished international public servants—participants in Singapore’s inaugural Leaders in Governance Programme. We also have the privilege of hearing from Stanford economist Paul Romer, on the challenges of generating and sustaining economic growth.
I wish you a productive read.
Dr Alvin Pang