ETHOS Issue 25, April 2023
We are moving into quite a different future. The external environment has changed. Domestically, we have a mature population with new needs but also more questions about how things are done. At the same time, we know we need to use resources more sustainably.
Public Service manpower growth cannot outpace that of the broader labour force when our population is not growing and the labour force is stagnating. This is the reality we must grapple with.
In my view, it is a privilege to have these demands placed on us, because it means that Singaporeans trust us to deliver and they look to us for solutions. This is a better position to be in than one in which the public does not trust government and has given up on it being able to solve problems, which is happening in some countries. But it does mean that we have to prioritise and approach our work differently.
Coming out of the pandemic, we see the cumulative strain that public officers have borne over the past few years: they feel overworked, and their engagement is dipping. This is in part because we have very committed public officers who want to do their best and go the extra mile, but as a result, they have given a lot of themselves and feel exhausted.
It is important to recognise this burnout, and therefore ﬁnd ways to refocus our public service workload on what really matters, in the face of many competing demands. We want to emphasise the areas of work that bring joy to our officers and reinforce the satisfaction they feel when they improve lives. At the same time, we should reduce the pain points that public officers face, such as the internal bureaucracy that comes with any mature, complex organisation.
If anything, COVID-19 has reaffirmed the value of good governance and the importance of the Public Service. This is why we need to continue to keep officers engaged in the Service and staying well.
It is important to refocus public service workload on what really matters.
Creating More Purposeful Work
In 2022, we launched a movement to manage work. We initially calledit the “Reduction Movement” but are deciding on a different phrase because it is not just about reducing unnecessary work, but also about uplifting the joys of work, emphasising purpose, and making a much bigger commitment through words and deeds to the development, progression and learning of all our officers.
It is vital that the Public Service delivers on the promises of this movement, in tangible and intangible ways. We must demonstrate our commitment to our officers’ wellbeing: that we do not take them for granted, even as we affirm our sense of shared mission as a Public Service.
We must ensure that we are changing the way we work, reducing internal red tape and so on. It must happen on the ground in a way officers can experience.
As Permanent Secretary, my duty to my colleagues is to make sure that our Ministry reviews all our processes and we understand the user journeys, to know what our officers are going through, so that we can make the right decisions on how to streamline and what to get rid of.
But any officer should also feel it is within their power to figure out the best way to do this. They know where the pain points are, be it travel claims or procurement processes, or clearance and reporting lines in their agencies.
I’d like to encourage all officers to embrace this sense of agency in raising these issues to supervisors, suggesting alternatives to achieve the intended outcomes, and then working together to make them happen. If we can get officers to work alongside supervisors to streamline work, with leaders prepared to make executive decisions to change processes, we will go a long way.
and foremost starts from a culture of wanting to do things better.
Balancing Care, Performance and Growth
We can draw an analogy with athletes at the very peak of their performance envelope, for example, LeBron James and Michael Jordan. To get to their highest performance levels, they have to train a lot. But what performance science tells us is they also have to recover, rest and recharge in order to continue to train and push their performance envelope. So, care, growth and innovation are mutually reinforcing.
A former Head of Civil Service used to say, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” At the end of the day, public officers are not digits nor statistics: they are part of a team, a family. And it is right we care for them, because we have a mutual connection by way of the organisation and our shared professional obligations. As leaders, we have this responsibility to care.
Wellbeing is a holistic concept that not only involves physical wellbeing, but also mental wellness, and physical wellness—making sure people are exercising, eating right and recharging. Our public officers tend to work very hard. Again, this comes from wanting to do well. But we should not overdo it. We must ﬁnd a balance so that we don’t feel so emotionally drained or mentally exhausted by what we are doing, which then eats away at us and affects our mental wellbeing, sometimes invisibly. It is important for officers to point out some of the areas which they ﬁnd emotionally taxing and not as meaningful, and then it is the responsibility of leadership to sort these out.
Our move towards reprioritising and reducing workload is not at all about compromising professional pride or outcomes.
Growth comes from learning and development. This in turn comes from a mindset that there is a brighter future, and we can progress towards that. Innovation first and foremost starts from a culture of wanting to do things better. It does not really matter what the innovation is, whether in terms of technology or process. It’s about attitude: we may be good now, but we want to be great.
New ideas can come when you step away from day-to-day work and get fresh perspectives elsewhere, such as through training programmes, or even when pursuing other interests. But it is not necessarily true that one cannot innovate by working hard; sometimes necessity can be the mother of invention, such as during a crisis. It is about balance.
It is important for us to deliver work professionally and with pride, but one’s identity cannot just be about work. It is just as critical to set aside time for other important priorities such as family and friends, or just private time, rest and reﬂection.
Challenges to Reprioritising Work
Culturally, it is not easy for us to let go of work. This stems from a certain sense of pride in our work, which is why we push ourselves so hard and work long hours and on weekends. But our move towards reprioritising and reducing workload is not at all about compromising professional pride or outcomes.
In the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), we are trying to automate some of our briefs, using off-the-shelf software to analyse data trends, for instance. Our mindset is to use technology to help us do work more quickly and easily. An efficiency savings of say 15 minutes may not seem like a lot, but it can add up. An hour a week means more time to take a power nap, or have lunch, or chill out. We should not underestimate this.
COVID-19 has shown us that we can actually work quite effectively through virtual means. I think this will eventually lead to a productive hybrid arrangement, while the nature of what we do face-to-face will change qualitatively. We should not lose what we have learnt during the pandemic.
For instance, at MTI, we are now more deliberate about making the days officers come into the office more interesting and purposeful—that is, they are not just coming in to do things they can do at home, but to reconnect with colleagues or to do work that is best done in person. We have also organised Ministry-wide gatherings called Chillax, to bring people together and unwind for an hour or so, to get to know each other personally, so that our relationships as colleagues are undergirded not just by work but a social bond.
Now, when we talk about prioritisation and focusing resources, it’s one thing to put emphasis on a particular workstream but it’s quite another to take away resources from other workstreams. But it is not always the case that when we downsize resources, outcomes suffer—sometimes there are different ways to deliver the same outcomes.
One area we ought to do more is to leverage the general public, and make use of resources outside the public sector—so we ourselves need relatively less to get things done. Successful private businesses manage leverage very well. Firms in the ﬁnancial sector often use a portion of their own resources but also raise external capital from elsewhere to deliver outcomes that they would not otherwise be able to achieve with just their own in-house capital. Our public sector needs to ﬁnd a way to do that.
We do not have to do it all alone. If anything, we have people and private sector organisations who are much more enabled and enthused about working with us to deliver these outcomes, and we should take full advantage of that. This is not just from a resourcing standpoint but has also to do with the way we operate nationally as a public sector. It is right that we take a more inclusive approach and involve multiple stakeholders. Let’s do that more, and better.
Leadership and Prioritisation
Ultimately, the greatest resource constraint, for anyone, is time. It’s highly perishable, not transferable, and not reversible. Prioritisation has always been part of the picture. Everyone has always had to work towards a resource envelope and make trade-offs. It is just that the envelope will be a bit tighter in future. Good leaders can never achieve good outcomes if they do not figure out what a team needs to deliver; how they need to resource that endeavour; and how they organise themselves for success.
The greatest resource constraint, for anyone, is time. It's highly perishable, not transferable, and not reversible. Prioritisation has always been part of the picture.
The key is how we engage our teams so that they have a bigger part to play in the prioritisation process. How do we work with them through the prioritising? How do we help those who may not have the resources they need to ﬁnd ways to deliver outcomes or better participate in the broader organisational mission? If we are sincerely committed to bringing everyone on board, I believe we can mitigate some of the downsides and trade-offs.
At heart, the Public Service attracts a certain type-highly empathetic, committed, and compassionate individuals, in the main. I do not think that will change in the short term. But the onus is on us to make sure public officers are given space to do their best.
Fundamentally, we have to care for our officers and live up to our commitment and responsibility to them. We cannot take them for granted. This is a basic principle of people management that is true now when we are thinking about a more resource-constrained environment, but it was true even when we had more surplus, and the world was more benign.
Reframing Public Sector Transformation
I would like to see more widespread acknowledgement and awareness of the importance of this movement, starting from the top. We want our officers to know we are serious and that this is intended for them: that it isn’t just about slogans, or something imposed by senior management.
I would also like to see more activity, with every ministry, agency, team and individual making conscious efforts to uplift the joy of working in the Public Service, streamlining the workload, but also having a commitment to development and growth.
We should aim to have a Public Service that is leaner, sharper, more focused and effective, but also one in which officers have a deeper sense of engagement and pride.
This must be an inclusive effort. While there is an onus on leaders to play their role, I would like everyone down the line to feel that they are both a beneﬁciary and an active contributor, empowered to make a positive difference and to experience the beneﬁts of it.
In the end, we should aim to have a Public Service that is leaner, sharper, more focused and effective, but also one in which officers have a deeper sense of engagement and pride.
These are not easy outcomes to achieve, but if we can move in these directions, we will be doing well. If we are able to corral together efforts from across the Service, as part of a broader movement with everyone feeling a sense of empowerment, we can make a decisive difference.