Debate on ministries’ budgets

Systems in place to allow public servants to speak up: Ministers

EDUCATION MINISTER (HIGHER EDUCATION AND SKILLS) ONG YE KUNG
EDUCATION MINISTER (HIGHER EDUCATION AND SKILLS) ONG YE KUNG

Officers are encouraged to suggest improvements, report wrongdoing, DPM Teo and Ong Ye Kung assure House

Are public servants not speaking up out of fear or disillusionment?

Two ministers said in Parliament yesterday that this should not be the case, noting that there are systems in place for public servants to report wrongdoing or suggest improvements.

Both Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung addressed comments by Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), who said during the Budget debate on Tuesday that public officers dare not speak up for fear of getting into trouble, and feel efforts to improve processes would be in vain.

Mr Ong, who leads public service innovation efforts, said officers are encouraged to raise ideas. For instance, a mechanism was recently added to the bonus system for agencies to recognise officers who show innovation and enterprise.

All agencies also conduct regular employee engagement surveys, he said, during the debate on the budget of the Prime Minister's Office.

Public officers at all levels must recognise that change starts with themselves, he said. As a minister, he asks himself if he is giving policy directions that are bold, clear and empowering enough for staff.

Permanent secretaries or chief executives would look at the culture they have built, while directors would ask if they have made improvements and motivated staff.

DON'T UNDERMINE IMPROVEMENT EFFORTS

But when generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush are made in public, and worse, further spread through media, it does not do justice to our officers, it discourages and undermines improvement efforts.

EDUCATION MINISTER (HIGHER EDUCATION AND SKILLS) ONG YE KUNG

Individual officers should reflect on whether they have acquired the skills to do their jobs and serve the public better.

In response to Mr Ng, Mr Ong said where the public service has fallen short, it will address the problem. "But when generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush are made in public, and worse, further spread through media, it does not do justice to our officers, it discourages and undermines improvement efforts."

He suggested that Mr Ng, as an MP and public figure, do his part by assuring civil servants that in his own experience he has never landed in trouble for speaking up.

If they feel the system does not allow them to make a difference, Mr Ng can ask them what it is they want to change. "If it is something that makes things better but their immediate supervisor is not supportive, then inform their Permanent Secretary or the head of Civil Service, or even have a word with me, and I will see to it," he said.

DPM Teo, who is Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service, in turn noted that the internal disclosure framework for public servants to report wrongdoing is working well.

About 320 cases were reported through the framework last year, a figure which has remained stable over the past three years, he said, responding to Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who asked if all public servants are aware of the whistle-blowing channels available.

Of these, nine in 10 cases were formally investigated and 134 resulted in some form of disciplinary action. Many did not involve the misuse of public funds and "did not reflect serious gaps in the public service's systems of checks and controls".

After the debate, Mr Ng said he would take Mr Ong's advice. He added: "I'm glad the ministers replied and came out to say that public servants shouldn't be afraid of speaking up."

Mr Ong also spoke about improving recruitment and progression schemes in the public service, in response to MPs such as Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) who asked for an update on public service efforts to focus on skills rather than paper qualifications.

He cited air traffic control officers, who are now placed in the same grade and receive the same salaries once they demonstrate the skills required, regardless of academic qualifications. The Public Service Division will work with other agencies to identify other areas where this can be done, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2018, with the headline 'Systems in place to allow public servants to speak up: Ministers'. Print Edition | Subscribe