ETHOS Issue 25, April 2023
The world is at a crossroads: perhaps its most signiﬁcant in decades. On the one hand, recent advances in technology herald tremendous, transformative leaps in the way we may soon live, work and play—as public excitement over recent AI-powered tools such as ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion indicates. On the other hand, a draining battle with COVID-19 has left societies reeling and exhausted—and yet they must continue to confront economic uncertainty from war, inﬂation, supply chain shifts, amid the looming threat of climate change, growing geopolitical contention, demographic ageing and other existential challenges.
The rapid conﬂuence of these disruptive megatrends have left governments with too much to do, with too little time to plan or prepare for a fundamentally different future. There is a sense in which an age of plenitude and complacent optimism is over, and we are entering an age of constraint: as societal demands proliferate while the resources needed to meet them become less readily available.
For the public sector, this is an important juncture at which to regroup and take stock: to reassess priorities and to consolidate hard-won lessons from a gruelling, as well as revealing, past few years. The necessities of the pandemic have shaken up many pieties—about the way we work, for instance—but it has also reaffirmed the purpose and meaning of Public Service. The urgency of current challenges can focus the mind and sharpen our sense of what really matters, allowing us to identify and trim our organisational and procedural fat. This renewed sense of discipline can only stand us in good stead in our next phase of development and innovation.
Even as we grapple with current demands, we must also continue to invest in the future. Indeed, reforms to instil greater prudence need not lead to damaging reductions in public value, but should pave the way for better means of generating and delivering it. Such reforms will include changes to government ﬁnancing to reﬂect the reality that many societal needs are interrelated, cut across agency lines, and are better addressed jointly. They will also look to harness new tools that multiply the effectiveness of the human and material resources we can deploy, and to ensure that sustainability is core to our operations in the long term.
An area for reinvigorated attention will be working with stakeholders and partners beyond the public sector to achieve public outcomes. While this is not a new approach, what was perhaps regarded as a good-to-have a decade ago has become all the more vital, precisely because of our constraints and the formidable scope of the challenges we face. In this, we can draw on a rich and growing body of international experience in carrying out such collaborations effectively. We must sustain the public trust and strong relationships crucial for such inter-sectoral efforts to thrive. Singapore’s Public Service, which enjoys very high levels of trust as a national institution, is in a good place to start reimagining the networks, communities, processes and partnerships we will need to thrive together as nation in a more turbulent 21st century. This is a precious resource we should not squander.
I wish you an inspiring read.
Dr Alvin Pang