ETHOS Issue 09, June 2011
A recent article in THE ECONOMIST1 portrays the public sector as pathologically inured to the productivity-enhancing initiatives that have transformed the private sector – although Singapore seems to buck the trend against OECD benchmarks. The general discourse on boosting productivity – be it the application of technology, worker retraining, or process reengineering – has likewise been targeted at businesses and employees rather than at governments. This is surely a pity: beyond the necessary tedium of due diligence and regulatory oversight which prevents (or could have prevented) systemic crisis, the public sector in any advanced country is a tremendous repository of information, expertise, energy and goodwill that, if judiciously applied, could multiply the efforts of all players in creating value for their respective fields.
The key is to better understand the evolving value proposition of the public service. Where there is a clear sense of how the public sector contributes to national outcomes, the considerable mechanisms of state can be cogently directed towards appropriate ends: whether it be to reduce barriers to productive activity, to channel resources to promising new sectors, or to unlock potential value by making infrastructure and information more widely available.
Bureaucracies may well have a tendency to rigidify along their functional structures if not much more than staid goalkeeping is expected of them. This however need not be the natural state of a vigorous, value-generating public service. Permanent Secretary Chan Lai Fung from the Ministry of Finance envisions a Government 2.0 spirit in which boundaryless, agile and expert task forces marshal whole-of-government resources towards national outcomes, in fruitful partnership with the private sector. A survey of large-scale collaborative projects in the Singapore Public Sector and new insights into the emergent phenomena of collaborative networks offer lessons on how pan-sectoral initiatives could yield even more productive results. The rise of new data-driven industries could see the public sector become the critical provider of a new factor of production: ubiquitous information. These developments are more than thought experiments – they are at the forefront of thinking about how governments can contribute to national growth: as an active participant in the value creation process, or by opening up whole new value streams for others to tap.
The emphatic importance of being clear about national goals and the larger purposes of growth informs the insights of Jesus Felipe, who offers further suggestions on how the public sector can enhance Singapore's national productivity, and of Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik, who sees room in a globalised world for small nations to be savvy and selective about their developmental choices. South Korea, also a case study in directed development, seems to be mobilising its national energies in order to establish a firm niche for itself in an Asia-led future. Highlighting the many ways in which governments play a vital role in the health of market economies, Donald Low and Wu Wei Neng from the Centre for Public Economics also point out the limits of intervention. While public policy cannot account for all variables, David Skilling argues that a balanced and managed approach to risk under increasingly complex conditions can itself be a source of competitive advantage in a volatile world. A more resilient nation, better prepared for uncertain conditions whether economically, socially or otherwise, is in a stronger position to brave the frontiers where the next wave of growth might be found.
Also in this issue: an account of Western Australian public service reforms to engender greater flexibility, accountability and streamline interagency operations. Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution finds the emphasis on personal responsibility in Singapore's social policies a strong contributor to national resilience. Drs Jeremy Lim and Clive Tan examine how the principles underlying Singapore's healthcare policies are expressed in the structure of the healthcare industry.
I wish you a stimulating read.
- March 17, 2011.