Is the Singapore Public Service bloated?

I was perusing the newspapers recently when I stumbled on this article by Devadas Krishnadas, “Time for the public sector to walk the talk and transform”, and I was a little shocked that a former high level public servant is criticising the government for allowing the public service to grow very large. His concerns, listed below, were that the public service had become increasingly labour intensive – and while not saying out loud – and inefficient.

  • There are 145,000 public servants for 5.6 million residents
  • 16 Government Agencies and 70 other agencies and organs of state
  • Nearly ALL civil servants are Singaporean
  • The average age of the civil service is lower than the private sector

However a quick perusal of the data, looking at Government Headcount, most of the growth came from three Ministries, namely Education, Home Affairs and Transport. Now if you’re familiar with Singapore or the issues that the country has been facing, this would not seem unusual for anybody. There’s been a need to provide more educators at all levels of schooling to lower the teacher to student ratios (still relatively high) and on the other side to remove the administrative components of the work that teachers do (still also really high). There’s been a need to provide more coverage in security and the cyber-security in particular, so necessarily there would be more hiring. And of course who isn’t familiar with the train system issues in Singapore, which LTA only recently took over full time with the move to a new model, so of course there was a need to increase the number of people again, but it was likely a transfer from the private companies that used to run it to the public service (this I can’t know for sure, but it would make logical sense).

Now lets talk about the labour force. We have approximately 3.7 million people in the labour which would make the public service approximately around 3.9% of the total labour force. For the sake of simplicity say 4%, this is far lower than pretty much every other jurisdiction out there. If you take for example the US, the number of public servants in the state of New York represents 16% of the total working population. It seems rather perplexing that Mr Krishnadas thinks that the public service is somehow extremely bloated and filled with overpaid functionaries.

That being said the government has been egging on the public service to transform. In fact the previous Minister of Manpower, Lim Swee Say, had a functional headcount freeze for large chunks of the public service because he wanted to force more efficiency. The public service is actively adopting new technology and tools to be more efficient though it continues to have a strong frontline service to cater to a large number of elderly folks that aren’t technology savvy.

Don’t get me wrong , the service needs to adopt new technologies and adopt them faster so that boring jobs that can be done by machines will free up time for public servants to do really meaningful work. That will take time, especially as the public service can’t be seen to fire people simply because we’ve started using more efficient practices. We need to set a good example of handling people displaced by technology.

Finally I’d just like to add, that there currently isn’t even enough jobs for the unemployed if we look at the Job Vacancy to Unemployed Persons Ratio (latest available data is for 2017) is still below 1 indicating that there are on average far fewer jobs available than people seeking jobs.

Perhaps Mr Krishnadas, if he is having difficulty hiring people because he believes that the public sector crowds out the private sector, might consider improving the wages and benefits that his company and other companies offer new hires and those in the marketplace. Perhaps if the private sector didn’t treat people so poorly there might not be a rush to get a government job where there is some safety. That being said there has to be a meeting in the middle of both the public and private sectors and less lobbing of accusations.