Everyone loses if trust in Govt is lost

It's disingenuous for public servants to see defending the Government when things go wrong as their primary duty.

Just too many things have been going wrong lately - the Singapore Armed Forces, Health Ministry and Singapore Post incidents.

We appear to be in denial that the problem - across the board - is systemic. Individual Committees of Inquiry (COIs) can only go so far. There's an urgent need for a whole-of-government response.

The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it.

It is not unreasonable for public servants - including political leaders - to provide an explanation when things go wrong. The aim, however, should not be to protect the organisation or its leaders even when there has been wrongdoing.

It's disingenuous for public servants to see defending the Government when things go wrong as their primary duty. Their accountability is to the people, who expect them to do the right thing.

This often translates to not fudging or sweetening the issues, defining the problem as it really is, and solving it decisively. By acting with integrity in such situations, public servants can help boost public trust in government.

Second, we need to identify common threads running through the various critical incidents.

One that stands out pertains to systems and processes. These can't be designed on the assumption that they will be used correctly all the time.

Instead, a good system must assume human error and frailties, and compensate for them.

Also, there appears to be an over-reliance on systems. Basic human instincts to observe, spot, think, respond and react are not exercised enough.

Over time, these cease to be instincts. The problems arising from this are evident in all the recent incidents.

Finally, and importantly, we must address the critical role of human behaviour and attitude in these incidents.

We all respond to risk and reward conditions. When there appears to be a routinised response when things go wrong - media conference, COI, apology - there's the risk of us getting used to things going wrong and accepting it.

There's an urgent need for us to get out of this vicious circle.

This will only happen if the leadership at the highest level sends an unequivocal signal that those in charge will be held accountable.

It cannot continue to be business as usual.

If nothing concrete is done to revive public confidence and trust in the Government, we all lose.

Viswa Sadasivan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2019, with the headline Everyone loses if trust in Govt is lost. Subscribe