'Think big, start small, act fast' to drive innovation in civil service, says Ong Ye Kung

Minister Ong Ye Kung advised senior civil servants not to attempt the impossible task of doing everything at once.
Minister Ong Ye Kung advised senior civil servants not to attempt the impossible task of doing everything at once.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Education Minister Ong Ye Kung (Higher Education and Skills) had some pithy advice for senior civil servants looking to push innovation in the public sector: "think big, start small, act fast".

He called on them not to boil the ocean and attempt the impossible task of doing everything at once, in a speech at the annual Administrative Service promotion ceremony and dinner held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel on Thursday (April 6).

Mr Ong, who was recently appointed to lead the innovation drive in the public service, set out four principles for doing so: embrace "bottom-up" input from citizens and the private sector; ensure policies are optimal at a national level; overcome inertia and start somewhere; and lastly, preserve trust between the civil service and the political leadership.

On his part, he said, he will focus on improving government procurement practices to spur innovation, promoting e-payment, and helping resolve regulatory snags that stop people from trying out new ways of doing things.

Mr Ong, a long-time public servant before he joined politics, also told officers who had relevant cases to bring them to his attention.

On the first principle, he said that the Government must be prepared to rethink and adapt even its best laid plans. This is because the situation on the ground is fluid, and new ideas may crop up.

For instance, the Land Transport Authority had planned to award a tender for an operator to run a bike-sharing programme, but dropped its plan after commercial companies like ofo, Mobike and oBike entered the market.

Citing another example, Mr Ong said the Government can also encourage innovation through its procurement practices.

He said how tenders are structured can determine whether smaller companies and start ups with new ideas have a fighting chance.

Second, the different ministries and agencies working on a project must see beyond narrow interests, and make sure that decisions are made at the national level.

He acknowledged that this was easier said than done as a scheme may make sense for one agency but not another. This is why strong leadership is needed to decide on what trade-offs to make, he said.

Third,the civil service "needs to start somewhere, know roughly where we want to go, and learn along the way", he said.

This is because there is no perfect, comprehensive grand plan for innovation, nor precedents to follow, said Mr Ong.

Bringing up the example of e-payment, he said some government agencies may want to adopt it only after more people and merchants start using it. But he suggested that the better way may be for ministries which handle a significant volume of transactions to lead the charge.

Lastly, Mr Ong said there must be trust between political leaders and the civil service.

He said that political leaders give the basic direction of policies, while the public service offers analyses of options and effective policy implementations. "For a country to do well, we need both hands to clap," he added.

At last night's dinner, 83 administrative officers were promoted or newly appointed to the Administrative Service. Deputy Prime Minster Tharman Shanmugaratnam paid tribute to two senior civil servants, Mr Niam Chiang Meng who retired last year, and Ms Lim Soo Hoon who is retiring at the end of this month.

Civil service head Peter Ong, in his speech, called on officers to be bold and and accept that failure is sometimes inevitable when they take risks.

He urged supervisors to develop a culture where officers feel it is safe to fail. But he cautioned that being bold does not mean being reckless.

He said officers need to have regular conversations with their bosses on their plans to develop a relationship of trust over time.

He added: "For Singapore to succeed, we must not be afraid to try."