Government. Big Brother. Innovative. Nanny State. Caring. Interventionist. Hands-off. Out of touch. Close to the ground. Ill-equipped. Getting in the way. Efficient. Comprehensive. Hawkish. Over-bearing. Red Tape. Future-oriented.
I first joined the Singapore public service in 2011 and I did so with the level of excitement typically reserved for Christmas presents and alcohol. It was excessive. Now, I didn’t go in blind, I’ve come a long line of public servants and the pains of working for such a large organisation was not lost on me.
However, I was optimistic and hopeful, that I could some how be more than a mere public servant and that my ideas would be able to change how the public service in particular looked at the world. To me public service was at that point in time a calling and a passion that I felt that I needed to achieve.
My Public Service Operating Model
In my mind when I went into the public service, I had a few operating concepts that I believed I should follow:
- A public servant has to be politically neutral.
- Any idea you might have comes second to that of the elected official whom the people have put in power to lead.
- The People who you serve is separate from the State whom you also serve.
- You are not a Yes man.
In theory that made sense to me but in reality all those points are really just constantly jumbled and mixed together in and incoherent mess to achieve immediate goals both economically, socially and politically. It was hard to know what was really the right thing to do. There really wasn’t a briefing or a discussion on how a public servant was expected to act, well besides the “Don’t Steal, Trade on Government information or Don’t embarrass the government.”
The avalanche of negativity
In the beginning it was harder still to listen to the mountain of criticism that one gets from the public. It didn’t matter how much time and dedication you gave to the job (at one point I was probably putting in 18 hour days), it was never really good enough. But within all that anger, you find a sort of inner strength to push through because criticism is supposed to help you improve, to get better and demand more of yourself. The criticism is often an excuse that people can sometimes give for the perception of apathy that citizens face in dialogue with the public service and I can understand where they are coming from but I don’t really buy it. Often I see the opposite, I’ve seen public servants accept the criticism and power ahead with new ideas or options.
Be positive for the end is worth it
Sure it chips away at one’s confidence in the short term, but it opens up other options and roads to travel if you have the appetite for that risk. It can sometimes take the shine away from one’s idealism. And you begin to dread the thoughts of expediency that cross your mind.
“Why not just get this done as quickly as possible? It’s not that important anyway, and people will complain whether or not you put in 10% or 110%. – I imagine is what most people think public servants consider.”
I have often found that it is quite easy to banish these thoughts, though I sometimes wonder whether others had more or the same difficulty as I in this matter. Reading some of the documents that come out of the ministries or the statutory boards one draw his own conclusions on that front. Some see it as laziness or the spirit of entitlement that has become a part of the public service, and to some extent that is true. But largely I suspect that it also a crisis of confidence on the part of the public servants wondering if they are actually doing any good to begin with.
I believe that any great public servant has to be driven by the desire to do better, and you have to be able to have a vision that people can follow. Great leadership and visionary leadership is missing from the public service today. If asked to do what civil servants in the 70s had to do and take a massive 20% pay cut for the good of the country, there would be a deluge of people who would leave the service in a snap.This isn’t driven more by the loss in pay, but rather it is driven by the loss of vision. Are we merely automatons meant to follow the will of the collective or can we be visionaries and inspire our people to believe in more? I would err on the side of being visionaries rather than simply trying to appease the collective.
Another trait that the service has seemed to develop over the last decade, is the perception of an increasingly mercenary force of people looking to make a name for themselves, make some money and leave to bigger and better things.This perception is not entirely wrong though at the same time I don’t believe it to be entirely bad. Often times you do need to bring in ambitious or high achieving people to be catalyst for greater change knowing full well that they might not stay in your organization for the long term. For a country and a service that is as small as ours, talent needs to be deployed accurately and then be allowed to be re-deployed when necessary.
The combined force of a hyper-skeptical public and a service with lackluster leadership are driving immense changes in the public service and it can be said that the public service of today isn’t your grandfather’s public service.
But I’m a perennial optimist.
But I am also optimistic for the public service and the promise that it holds to be a bastion of innovative, forward and considerate thinking that can help drive the country to greater heights. But that ultimately also depends on the will and the wants of the people of this country. For a public service is largely only as good as the public it is called to serve.
Improvements can be brought about from within and without. There is a need for the service to take in agitators and people who see things differently, not simply to bring in diverse “views” but to create diverse action and projects. There is a need to rethink whole programs and institutions not because they are not operating well today but because they might not work well going forward and it is important that we start the change today.
There is a need to bring back the rigour of long-term planning and stewardship and to explain and describe our reasons for doing what we do in a way that can inspire convergence, rather than simply constantly asking people what they want and trying to appease all the different corners of our diverse citizenry.
- The elected government and the public need to reconcile their expectations of the public service.
- The Public Service needs visionary leadership to make the structural changes to improve the organization.
- Mavericks shouldn’t fear going into the public service to push for change. It will be hard and maybe a little frustrating but you will make a difference.
- Be critical and be kind to your public servants. They are citizens too.