Public service officers urged to engage Singaporeans to 'co-create' solutions

Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong speaking at the Public Service Leadership Dinner.
Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong speaking at the Public Service Leadership Dinner.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - 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 on Wednesday (Nov 21).

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 the partnerships with stakeholders.

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

More than 880 officers 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 frontline 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 create sustained, inclusive growth and build a fair and inclusive society.

Like other countries, Singapore faces challenges of a maturing economy, a rapidly 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 the interests of workers and consumers must be safeguarded, and the Government cannot step back and let markets reign supreme, he added.

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

There are, 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, he 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 sat him down and gave him a lecture on promoting a culture of small improvements, and to take suggestions - big or small - from everyone in the organisation.

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

She said all its officers are involved in collecting feedback for Reach, which has set up mobile booths in heavy-pedestrian 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.