Go out and engage Singaporeans, minister urges public officers

A former top civil servant, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has this advice for today's up-and-coming public officers: Don't just do paperwork behind the desk, but go out and engage stakeholders and Singaporeans.

The way the Government works nowadays is no longer just about developing policies for Singaporeans, but also "co-creating solutions together with them", he told more than 500 leaders and officers in the public sector yesterday.

The new approach requires public officers to arm themselves with new capabilities and skills, including learning how to negotiate differences and build consensus, he said.

This challenge means "more effort and time in getting your work done", he added. "But this is crucial in enabling us to build stronger ties with Singaporeans, and in achieving better outcomes for all."

The journey to partner citizens in shaping Singapore's future has started via national-level engagement exercises like Our Singapore Conversation, he noted as he called on the officers to strengthen partnerships with stakeholders.

Mr Wong, who rose to be chief executive officer of the Energy Market Authority before entering politics, was speaking at a dinner for officers appointed to the Public Service Leadership Programme.

Over 880 have been appointed to the programme since its launch in 2013 to develop specialists in various fields, including infrastructure and the environment. They work with Administrative Service officers to lead the public service.

 
 

The need to bolster citizen engagement was also stressed by civil service head Leo Yip in his address.

Mr Yip said the pilot run of a new initiative, Engagement Immersion for Leaders, was launched last month. It involves officers working directly with citizens on the front line and gathering ground feedback.

"I don't think it is good enough for us to read reports of feedback gathered by other officers... We develop a stronger sensibility and empathy by directly understanding the needs, concerns, anxieties and hopes of the citizens," he said.

Mr Wong, in his speech, also said the Government must "double down" on its efforts to build a fair and inclusive society.

Like others, Singapore faces challenges of a maturing economy, an ageing population and issues of social mobility and inequality.

He believes a well-functioning market is still the best way to grow the economic pie in the long term to produce more jobs, better pay and higher living standards for all.

But workers and consumers' interests must be safeguarded, and the Government cannot step back and let markets reign supreme, he said.

Well-structured regulations are needed and Mr Wong gave examples, such as property cooling measures and other measures controlling the inflow of foreign workers.

There is, however, no quick fix, he said. "We must continuously question old assumptions and review policies."

He also recounted an interaction with former civil service head Lim Siong Guan to drive home the point not to underestimate the significance of small improvements or dismiss ideas outright.

As a young officer, Mr Wong had told Mr Lim, then permanent secretary of the Finance Ministry, to just go for quality ideas in the Staff Suggestion Scheme. "He gave me this look and I knew I had said the wrong thing."

Mr Lim gave him a lecture on promoting a culture of small improvements, and to take suggestions - big or small - from all staff.

Mr Wong's call to engage citizens resonated with assistant director Cacherel Sim of the Ministry of Communications and Information.

She said all its officers help collect feedback for Reach, which has set up mobile booths in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic to engage Singaporeans.

"While this sometimes means clocking time outside of working hours, it's a good reminder of who we are serving and how our policies are perceived.

"The insights you pick up can often surprise you," Ms Sim said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2018, with the headline 'Go out and engage S'poreans, minister urges public officers'. Print Edition | Subscribe