Peter Ho

A game-changer for tick-the-box civil servants

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Real life is complex and uncertain. But government decision-makers are more comfortable with structure and control. Use of military inspired, simulated "policy games" can help even deskbound bureaucrats learn to fly by the seat of their pants.

In the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, the future Captain James Kirk is a cadet in the Starfleet Academy. Spock has accused him of cheating in a simulation exercise called Kobayashi Maru. Kirk argues that the cheating is justified because the simulation has been designed to be unbeatable. Spock counters that Kirk had failed to understand that the purpose of the exercise is "to experience fear… To accept that fear and maintain command of one's self and one's crew".

Much of what we learn is knowledge that is formalised and codified. This is explicit knowledge. It is written in books. In school and at university, explicit knowledge is transmitted in the classroom through textbooks and lectures.

Then there is tacit knowledge, knowledge that is embedded in complex systems and situations, in which roles, technologies, emotions and behaviours interact in dynamic and unpredictable ways that are almost impossible to codify.

Tacit knowledge has to be acquired in other ways. Often, tacit knowledge is acquired on the job - through what some would call "learning by doing".

Sometimes, tacit knowledge can be developed through simulations, exercises and games. Like their richer cousin - real-life experience - they can expose us to emotions and senses that we cannot fully grasp just by sitting through a lecture. To teach the Starfleet cadets how to manage fear, the imaginary Kobayashi Maru creates fear by simulating the complexities of emotion and stress that exist in combat situations.

Dr Gary Klein, an American psychologist, examined how firemen make decisions in complex and stressful situations. He showed that firemen do not fight fires by working through a logical decision tree from their firefighting manual. Instead, they apply the first pattern in their experience that most resembles their current situation to fight the fire raging in front of them. In situations of stress or incomplete information, people do not necessarily make decisions in a logical way. Instead, they draw on a repository of patterns, acquired through experience and training, to make their decisions. Dr Klein's findings led the US military to change the way it trains its officers.

This is a big reason why simulations, exercises and games are so important. Not only do they impart some of the hidden complexities that make up tacit knowledge, but they also embed patterns in the memory of participants, which can be recalled later for making decisions in real-life situations. This is pattern recognition. The value of pattern recognition is that it triggers responses to a problem - as Dr Gary Klein discovered in firemen.

There is, unfortunately, no shortcut to building up such a repository of patterns. Merely learning the theory of firefighting is not enough. It is only by taking part in many simulations, exercises and games - and through real- life experience - that the fireman grows his library of patterns. As more patterns are embedded in memory, the ability to make sound decisions when fighting real fires or dealing with other complex situations is strengthened.

In the early days of the Vietnam War, the US Air Force realised that it was losing too many aircraft to enemy action. A study showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat improved dramatically after 10 combat missions. So in 1975, the USAF established Exercise Red Flag to simulate these 10 combat missions, before its aircrews were sent into real combat. Our Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilots and crews have participated in Red Flag for many years. All will testify to the intensity and the realistic training that these exercises provide, and how these exercises have improved their professional confidence.

In Red Flag, pilots and crews learn experientially to pick up cues - physical, visual, and emotional - and to acquire judgments of combat situations that cannot adequately be taught in the classroom. Equally important, like Dr Klein's firemen, they acquire patterns of complex situations that could prove invaluable when in actual combat, in which life- or-death decisions have to be made in a split second, and when there is no time to reflect or analyse.

A hierarchy is optimised for the leader at the top to receive all the information, and then to make the decisions. But under stress, such as in war or conflict, a military hierarchy can become unresponsive - even dangerously dysfunctional - because there are decision-making bottlenecks at the top. Events move too fast for the general or admiral to call all the shots. He risks having all his cognitive synapses saturated, or he lacks sufficient bandwidth to comprehend the full scope of the problem, or he lacks the tacit knowledge to cope with the complexity of the situation. Nobel economist Herbert Simon called this cognitive problem bounded rationality.

Knowing how to cope with bounded rationality is an important component of the tacit knowledge of military leaders.

Simulations, exercises and games are not just important to the military and the national security agencies. They are equally important for the proper functioning of government as a whole, where a lot of knowledge is actually tacit rather than explicit.

Furthermore, because governments actually operate in a complex environment, many decisions will have to be made under conditions of incomplete information and uncertain outcomes. Government decision-makers are as susceptible to the challenges of bounded rationality as are military leaders.

But in contrast to the military, governments have generally not exploited simulations, exercises and games as a pedagogical approach to train their leaders and civil servants. In fact, this approach is largely underutilised and often overlooked for its value in helping civil servants in general, and policy planners and decision-makers in particular, to better cope with the complexities inherent in their operating environment.

When I was Head, Civil Service, I argued that the Civil Service should deploy such methods systematically in order to improve the quality of planning and decision-making. To distinguish the simulations, exercises and games of the Civil Service from those of the military, I used the shorthand of calling them "policy games", instead of war games or military games. In response, the Civil Service College established a group called Cast - CSC Applied Simulation Training. In the last few years, Cast has built up some capabilities in policy gaming, and it has rolled out a few games for CSC's training and milestone programmes.

One of Cast's early efforts was the Villa La Rose policy game. It is based loosely on real-life events that followed the decision to build an MRT station at the entrance to the Maplewoods condominium. In this policy game, participants play the roles of different stakeholders, each with different motivations and interests in relation to the building of a drilling shaft outside the condominium "Villa La Rose". This is obviously a wicked problem, with multiple stakeholders, each of whom defines the nature of the challenge and their interests differently. The game enables participants to explore the dynamics among these diverse stakeholders, how they make decisions, their assumptions and behaviours, as well as the role and use of public engagement.

Villa La Rose has now been run over 30 times in various courses. Feedback on Villa La Rose has been uniformly positive. While the game can never fully capture all the details and nuances of real life, participants come to appreciate the complexity of the issues that surface in the course of playing the game. It helps them to recognise the importance of public engagement and the need to show empathy when faced with an increasingly demanding and outspoken citizenry. All these lessons fall clearly in the realm of tacit knowledge and pattern recognition.

The National Security Coordination Secretariat's foray into policy gaming has paralleled CSC's. Last year, NSCS conducted a policy game on the Internet. An online crowdsourcing simulation game, Project Wikisense involved about 170 participants from government agencies, academia, and from international think-tanks. Over 21 days, participants in Wikisense generated and analysed scenarios on the Internet on the topic of "Eurasian Resources and Economic Trajectories". Wikisense demonstrated that an online platform could bring together a large and diverse group of participants, scattered over continents and living in different time zones, into a systematic and directed discussion on a challenging topic. At the end of 21 days, a rich collection of 136 scenarios had been developed. The cognitive diversity that Wikisense achieved showed the potential of such online policy games for broadening the base of tacit knowledge.

While it clearly has tremendous value in helping civil servants cope with wicked problems and complex strategic issues, policy gaming should not be treated as an occasional but entertaining diversion. It should be established as a part of routine training. This is the way to systematically embed patterns, and reinforce tacit knowledge. The RSAF may take part in Red Flag only once in a while, but on a daily basis its pilots, aircrew and controllers take part in simulation exercises and war games to hone their fighting skills.

In a similar way, civil servants who routinely work in complex environments, such as media officers and diplomats in the Foreign Service, should regularly take part in policy games.

NSCS intends to develop an online policy gaming platform as part of the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system. This is a very positive thing.

One shortcoming of the way the policy games are played is that the participants come mostly from similar Civil Service backgrounds. This can lead to groupthink, predictable reactions, and to old patterns being merely repeated. Policy gaming just among civil servants will not help them see that other people might react in completely different ways to a given situation.

To circumvent this problem, certain policy games should engage participants from outside the Civil Service. People from different backgrounds and views will help to create more and different patterns that can only improve the learning value of such games.

With the encouraging work of Cast and NSCS over the last few years, the Civil Service should now move to systematically design and run policy games for civil servants at all levels. The use of policy games for planning, policy design, futures work, public engagement, and service delivery should be explored. Policy games must become integral to the proper running and organisation of the Civil Service in Singapore.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer was head of the Civil Service, and is now senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, set up by the Public Service Division to develop public sector capabilities for future strategic challenges.

This is extracted from a speech delivered at the Civil Service College on Tuesday.