Long, hard slog to push for public sector innovation

This is an edited excerpt of a speech by Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung at the Public Service Conference on Oct 2.

Like Singapore, many countries are trying to create an environment conducive for innovation and experimentation. They have the advantage.

First, they have bigger markets so, naturally, enterprises want to set up there to tap the bigger markets.

Second, for many countries, they may not regulate everything so tightly. That means there is a lot more "white space" for ideas, sometimes even crazy ones, to flourish. In some ways, that was how Alipay and WeChat Pay flourished in China - through a trial-and-error process because e-payment was not really regulated in China.

Singapore cannot compete with these countries head-on because our position is diametrically opposite from them: They are big, with lots of "white space"; we are small, and very well and tightly regulated.

So how can we compete? It is to offer impeccable inter-agency and cross-agency coordination to make things happen. And yes, we need a "whole-of-government" approach.

But this is a concept - and let's be honest with ourselves - that can be misunderstood.

Whole-of-government means every agency chipping in to contribute towards a larger cause, to make something that is impossible possible. It is not every agency having its own vested interest, having a veto right, and making the possible impossible.

It is no different to how we have attracted FDI (foreign direct investment) over the decades.

That was central to the Economic Development Board's (EDB) mission, but it has always been a "whole-of-government" effort in the true sense - where there was a central objective to bring in FDI to create jobs, with every agency contributing towards it, applying your minds and reviewing your rules and regulations with that key goal in mind.

We can make ourselves attractive to innovation and enterprise too, by calling on the cooperative spirit of the entire Public Service towards a much larger national goal.

Event organisers who want to put up banners in Orchard Road now have to work with five government agencies, each of which has slightly different requirements. The process has been streamlined so that from Jan 1, the Land Transport Authority will be the one-stop shop. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG


In this pursuit of innovation, what is stopping us from being the best we can be? The main obstacle, I would say, is ourselves. We are all public officers here, in charge of regulations and policies.

Ask ourselves honestly: How much time do we spend enforcing rules, coming up with new rules, or regulating something more tightly? As opposed to reviewing rules, reassessing the pros and cons, the risks and the returns, applying the rules differently, and exercising more judgment, so that more new and innovative activities can happen.

Weigh the time you did the former versus the latter. How often do you say "no" to a new activity? As opposed to saying "maybe, yes, we can try it out" within a sandbox. I think, not much of the latter.

In my dialogues with public officers, often in the Civil Service College during your milestone courses, I asked this question as well and most would come back to me and say "not much". Too much day-to-day running, too much day-to-day operating. Just enforcing and tightening rules as opposed to facilitating new activities.

And I asked them: "Why is that so? Why aren't you spending more time on innovation, reviewing rules, opening up the spaces?"

No time?

And these are usually the reasons: first reason, "no time". But innovation is like exercise. You make time. We never have time for exercise but when you make time and when you have done it, you realise that you have done something good and, over time, it becomes a habit. And so, we must make innovation a core responsibility of every senior public officer. And over time, this core responsibility becomes a habit.

No budget?

The second reason is "no budget; no manpower". But innovation is not really about having a big budget, more manpower, or a lot of time. On the contrary, the best ideas have always sprouted because of some desperate need, because we are so short of resources, or because we are so short of budget.

Estonia implemented e-government not because they have a lot of budget to spare, but because they had no budget and resources to run a big paper-based bureaucracy. So they had no choice but to go into national digital identity. In Singapore's case, we have world-class water technology, but that was because we were so short of water before. Even now, we continue to face that challenge. So we broke out of that constraint.

No support from boss?

The third reason that public officers often tell me is, "my boss doesn't support me".

Maybe that is true but remember, we are public officers of a certain seniority here so we are all bosses here. And you can empower your staff and yourself to do something.

It may be staid logic, that when you "fail to plan, you plan to fail" but equally - when you "fail to start, you start to fail".

So do not wait for that grand plan. Do not wait for the boss to tell you that this is the vision and this is the grand plan in order to start doing something today.

So I say this: Make a start, no matter how small.

Innovation is not about grand plans, KPIs, technology, big budget, and ample time and resources. The main obstacle is really ourselves - our organisation and all of our entrenched processes, bureaucracy, and a culture of being afraid. Afraid to fail because all these years we have succeeded. Afraid to hunger because we have been quite full.


I spoke about the need to "Think Big, Start Small, and Act Fast" at the Administrative Service Dinner earlier this year.

Since that speech, I made the time to maintain a series of 10 rules to review, to make them more supportive of innovation and enterprise. When one review is completed, I would close the case and start another one. PSD (Public Service Division), the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), and the Pro-Enterprise Panel (PEP) Secretariat have been most helpful in supporting me in this effort. I set a timeline of 30 days for each review. If, after 30 days, nothing is done or I feel there is an impasse, I will meet the senior officials in charge of those rules.

We will then weigh the pros and cons and have a robust discussion. We will make a judgment at the end of the meeting to resolve it. Usually these meetings last no more than 30 minutes.

Let me tell you some of the things that we have done in the past few months. One of the issues that I looked at was procurement. Some of you may have had this experience before: you have a small office event and you know this very good caterer. You want to get the caterer for a good price. But, somehow, your finance department says "cannot".

You have an event and you know this freelancer who can take very good photographs, and is very cheap. But your finance department again says "cannot". All of us have gone through that.

You are receiving a foreign guest and you heard from the Ministry of Education that at one of our art schools, a student has created a very nice local art piece at a very reasonable price. You want to procure that instead of giving gold-plated orchids for once. But the finance department says "cannot", because you must call for quotations, or because there is this long-term three-year contract you have signed with somebody so you must obtain his services.

I was slightly disturbed by that, so I asked the Ministry of Finance (MOF) what the rule is. As it turns out, MOF's rules allow you to exercise flexibility for small-value purchases so long as it is good value for money and is under $5,000. So I asked MOF to please disseminate this information more widely among our public officers.

Today, when I go around asking senior public officers, there tends to be greater awareness that this flexibility is actually provided for. And I do see more offices, departments and ministries exercising it.

It is very useful for start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs to be able to approach a government department to get a job. They then have a reference job and can go out to the market and say that they have done this job for a certain ministry. It will help them penetrate the larger market.


Today, if you are an event organiser and you want to put up banners and promote your event along Orchard Road and the Civic District, you have to work with five government agencies. Each one looks after a specific segment of the area. Each of these agencies has slightly different requirements on the dimensions and design of the banner. But to the organiser, it is not the most business-friendly.

I raised this issue with the agencies. It got the agencies together quickly and within my 30-day limit, they have come to a conclusion. They have streamlined the process so that from Jan 1 next year, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will be the one-stop shop. LTA, thank you very much and good job.

The thing is, when it comes to innovation, sometimes we must have an agency that is prepared to stick its neck out. And the good thing is this: all five agencies have standardised their design requirements.


Earlier in April at the Administrative Service Dinner, I talked about a multi-agency effort to experiment with floating solar panels on a fairly large scale at the Tengeh Reservoir. We need to develop our capacity to generate renewable energy because more multinational corporations (MNCs) are demanding it.

Many MNCs are striving and aiming to be zero-or low-emission companies. And in Singapore, because we are going to have a carbon tax, many MNCs are actually motivated to do it faster.

We have limited generation capacity for renewable energy. We cannot do wind - wind is not strong here. We do not have geothermal energy, and thank goodness for that because it would otherwise mean we would have volcanoes. So what is realistic for Singapore is solar energy. And yet, we do not have large tracts of land so putting solar panels on reservoirs is a fairly viable and attractive option.

There were concerns expressed by various agencies. But to their credit, in the past few months, in our discussions, we have untied most of these knots. PUB, since last week, has called for tenders for environmental and engineering studies for two reservoirs that they are interested in. The Ministry of Defence is helping to expedite similar feasibility studies for Sarimbun and two other reservoirs in the west, where they conduct military training. EDB is exploring the possibility of getting private, commercial participation in setting up solar panels, generating renewables and selling it to MNCs. So I hope that very soon, our reservoirs will be a source of supply for not just clean water, but also clean energy.

I have no magic wand to make innovation happen. The projects I mentioned above happened partly because I made time to drill into the details. But more importantly, every one of these projects made progress because there was a small group of senior officials - some of you seated here - who worked with me, weighed the pros and cons, and made those judgments, made those decisions, and implemented the change.

It requires hard work. It requires our persistence to change to trump the intransigence against change. It requires political leaders and public officers to work hand in hand.

Innovation in the Public Service, I think, is not so much about a sudden burst of genius, or some flashes of divine inspiration. I think it is a systemic, long-term, hard slog across the board.

When the Public Service innovates, we are neither looking at raising venture capital money nor seeking a listing of our agency. We innovate to improve lives, overcome our constraints, serve our citizens better, and shape our destiny as a country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Long, hard slog to push for public sector innovation'. Print Edition | Subscribe