The Singapore public service is a topic of great interest for me (being that I’m one of them) and I’ve written previously on the role of the public service and the difference between public servants and civil servants for the more pedantic among you. Over the years and even more recently there has been a lot of discussion about the structure of the Public Service and in particular the Admin Service or more commonly referred to as public service leaders or “ivory tower planners” or other less well meaning comments (although perhaps not entirely inaccurate). So to begin I thought we should look at how the public service sees itself, or at least, how their communication team has chosen to describe them.
In particular, we need to develop teams of leaders, comprising both generalist leaders and specialist leaders, who can provide stewardship for these capabilities. These groups of leaders are expected to complement the work of one another by contributing different expertise and perspectives, thus equipping the Public Service with both breadth and depth of skill sets and capabilities.
The Administrative Service has been important in developing capable leaders for the Public Service, and will continue to develop generalists able to integrate the work of agencies across the government. On the other hand, the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) will focus on developing specialist talent with deep expertise in various government sectors.
Immediately the lay person is drawn to certain perceived discrepancies in wording. It is stated that the public service is looking to develop both generalist and specialist leaders yet at the same time the Admin Service, which is considered to be the elite agency, is only focused on generalist. One would be correct, based on this, to jump to the conclusion that the public service values generalist over specialist. It’s interesting as well to note that the wording sort of suggests that the PSLP is some sort of consolation prize for specialist who will eventually reach a glass ceiling of sorts and be left to tread water until they retire (or the more brilliant sorts will leave and start consulting agencies which the Government will then hire at a much larger price- potentially). That to me shows to me a distinct lack of understanding as to how people are motivated and operate. The inability to retain high quality people has bemoaned for years in public service circles and it is my belief that communication (and communication such as these) that leads a lot of people to re-consider why they choose to join the public service in the first place.
The Administrative Service is designed to recruit, groom and develop the next generation of public service leaders. Drawing together the top echelon of officers, the Administrative Service dedicatedly works to address needs, spot trends, and maintain standards in the Civil Service.
Ideally the admin service is meant to represent the best of the best that the civil service has to offer, leaders who can improve and deliver impeccable government services to the population. The problem with the current service is in my opinion one where the incentives are not aligned with delivering great service. Admin officers, especially senior admin officers, are incredibly well-paid, provided with a pension and great medical benefits, in a way one could argue that this encourages a leadership that is conservative and one that chooses not to look to hard into the policies of the men and women who now determine their bonuses. The hard conversations are not being held on long simmering issues which have been hallmarks of government service. A few examples include. Interestingly I don’t actually out-rightly disagree with a lot of policy but ultimately they should be better communicated to the people in a way that is easily understood.
- CPF or National Retirement Adequacy
- ERP or pollution (smog) and congestion control
- HDB or how do you define home and how much should it cost.
- MOE or are we teaching what topics that are relevant today or topics for the future
- MOH or balancing cost efficiency with medical innovation.
– A few examples
Serving across different ministries and statutory boards, you will possess all-encompassing knowledge of the complexities and demands of the business of government. Strategically placed at the core of government, you will work closely with Ministers and Permanent Secretaries to shape, implement and improve crucial policies whose results trickle down to impact the lives of all Singaporeans. You will be continually exposed to Training and Development opportunities to prepare you to tackle emerging issues.
Ultimately if an admin officer is deemed good enough, he/she is often moved to lead different organisations throughout his career. A high profile and good example would be the one and only Lim Siong Guan who has been Head of Civil Service, Chairman of IRAS, Chairman of EDB, before finally landing as Group President of GIC. There are a few ways to look at the way admin officers progress through the civil service. The more benign view is that performers are provided more opportunities to show that they can excel. The more cancerous way to look at it is that certain people are provided more opportunities than the average civil service officer to succeed, so naturally they do at some point. The hard part is trying to figure out where Singapore civil service is currently at, and the reason for that is the lack of transparency for how public service leaders are chosen and why they are chosen. At some point in time that will have to change but it has to be done in a way that allows for transparency into how the civil service operates without diving too deeply into the lives of the selected civil servants. I certainly would like to avoid situations like the US where it can take months to appoint essentially public service leaders.
Build it better
A few ideas that I’ve been tossing around to improve the admin service:
- Merge the PSLP with the Admin Service. Separate but equal has never made sense.
- Moderate the pay of top civil service leaders
- Increase the diversity of PSLs. I wouldn’t advocate a quota but we should have PSLs that have come from a variety of races, economic stratas, education backgrounds, careers and genders.
- Improve transparency into the selection process.
- Have PSLs conduct Meet-the-people sessions to get more direct feedback. But not as many as the MPs, otherwise no work would get done.