In his Address to Parliament recently, President Tony Tan Keng Yam noted that demands on amenities, infrastructure and resources would rise as Singapore becomes increasingly complex and diverse. One solution would be to make full use of new technologies to improve lives. "We will make Singapore a Smart Nation," he declared, mentioning more responsive public services as another way to realise that vision.
In the same vein, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has called on civil servants to be swift and nimble in responding to citizens' needs. The urgency of the task was underscored by the reminder coming from the Minister in charge of the Civil Service.
The two tests for the civil service at a transitional time for Singapore lie in the areas of methods and mindsets. On the first front, officers who work with one another across agencies can draw on an array of resources to deliver first-rate service. This way of doing things is important especially as social policies get increasingly complex to answer to the needs of a diversified population. Unlike the time when a single policy could address the interests of a large number of Singaporeans, the fragmentation of interests today demands that public service officers expand their resource base to serve citizens.
The second test relates to mindsets. While work tends be defined by routines, responsibilities and outcomes, what civil servants do has an added dimension - they play an irreplaceable, everyday role in mediating between state and society. Unlike work in a market-driven organisation which aims to primarily serve its customers, tasks in the civil service are directed at citizens.
Young entrants to the civil service need to understand that their work is a calling that cannot be fulfilled if they adopt a silo mentality, with each ministry mindful of its own turf and interests. Better outcomes can often be obtained by engaging others in different organisations and tapping people's ideas and energy to create "a sense of ownership" of tasks and results, as Mr Teo noted.
However, the entire load of change cannot be carried by the civil service, no matter how much it improves itself. For Singapore to be a smart nation, its citizens, too, must understand that needs and wants are not the same thing, that national resources are limited, that there must be give-and-take in the way interests are negotiated, and that the state can operate only at the level of fairness and equity that citizens are prepared to grant one another. Habits of negotiation and compromise honed in everyday contexts help to strengthen the national edifice within which civil servants work. Having come so far, Singapore will need close collaboration among its various sectors to keep moving forward.