Public service needs mid-career hires from private sector, can benefit from their expertise

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and civil service head Leo Yip (left) arrive for the annual Public Service Leadership Dinner on Jan 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - The public service has not done well enough in recruiting mid-career entrants from the private sector, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Jan 17).

"This is not for lack of trying," he said. "Often, it fails to work out because the gulf in culture and mission between the private and public sectors is just too deep."

Yet, such mid-career hires bring with them expertise that the public service lacks, and see with fresh eyes what public servants may take for granted, he told public sector leaders.

This includes direct experience of how the private sector operates, and what it takes to win business and make a bottom line, he added.

"It is not easy at all for someone to join the public sector mid-career, because when they first come in they will almost, by definition, lack the knowledge and instincts that take many years to build," Mr Lee said. "But it is precisely this freshness of perspective that makes mid-career entrants valuable to us, because they can - when it works out - see with fresh eyes what we have long taken for granted, and ask some basic questions why that should be so."

Addressing about 900 public servants at the Public Service Leadership Dinner on Friday evening, Mr Lee stressed that they should not make mid-career entrants conform to the service.

"We should not make mid-career entrants conform to what we already are. We don't need another person who is just like us," he said.

"Instead, we should help them settle in, integrate into and win the trust of the group while retaining their unique experiences and differences and making an extra effort to take in their ideas and perspectives."

The Public Service Leadership Dinner is held every year to celebrate the contributions of officers in leadership roles. Friday's event was the first time that leaders from both the Administrative Service and the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) were present.

While officers in the Administrative Service are trained to work across domains and see things from a strategic perspective, those in the PSLP are typically professionals with deeper knowledge in their respective fields.

PM Lee said both groups maximise each other's strengths, and that the public service leadership as a whole needs more diversity in officers' experiences, temperaments and mindsets.

This is why mid-career entrants from the private sector are valuable, he added.

On top of that, the public service is working to more deliberately select and recruit its leaders for diversity, Mr Lee said. For instance, the Public Service Commission has started looking beyond intellectual acumen and good character to give weight to unique backgrounds and experiences in potential scholarship holders.

The public service should also be made more permeable between different schemes and services, the Prime Minister said. For instance, PSLP officers who show aptitude for an Administrative Service role should be moved there and vice versa.

"To some extent this already happens today, but more officers moving across schemes will reinforce the idea of a collaborative network and a collective leadership," he said.

Civil service head Leo Yip, who also spoke at the event, said that leadership in the civil service needs to be transformed.

A year ago, it set up a committee to revamp its leadership development system, with an eye to nurture more diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences in its leadership corps, as well as to improve development pathways for its leaders, he said.

It has also reviewed its framework of competencies that leaders should have, including among other things a list of "red flags". These are behaviours that could make a leader ineffective, such as a lack of courage to make tough decisions or prioritising their agency's mission over the collective outcome.

Mr Yip added that more effort is being put into building a stronger collective leadership among senior leaders, such as chief executives, deputy secretaries and permanent secretaries.

He told his colleagues that one of their responsibilities as leaders is to drive change in the sector and ensure it is ready for the future.

"Those of you who lead organisations, continue to exemplify this transformation, make changes happen, and galvanise your officers to prepare for and embrace these changes," he said.

"The rest of you, be bold in initiating and implementing new ideas to improve how we work, embrace a growth mindset and seize upskilling opportunities yourself, and be a change agent in this transformation journey."

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