Thursday, 29 March 2012

Govt must not shy away from hard decisions: DPM Teo

Engagement is part of policy process but there are trade-offs, he says
By Phua Mei Pin, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2012

EVEN as the Government seeks to engage the public as it makes decisions, it must not shy away from making hard decisions if the country is not to be plunged into policy paralysis.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said this last night when addressing a dinner attended by Singapore's top public servants.

'Public engagement should start from the point of policy design and continue even as we implement these policies,' he said.

'But it is often not possible to satisfy everyone. There will be competing interests and demands, some of which contradict one another. Often, there will have to be trade-offs and difficult decisions, which the Government must not shy away from.'

Citing an example, he said that while everyone agreed on the need for facilities for the elderly, these have to be built somewhere.

To have an expanded MRT network, tunnels, tracks and stations would have to be built and this would mean some Singaporeans 'would suffer inconvenience, which cannot be fully mitigated, and come away feeling disappointed'.

'But as we mature as a society, we should learn to accept and manage this, and not let it paralyse us from moving forward as a nation.'

Mr Teo, who is also the Minister in charge of the Civil Service, Coordinating Minister for National Security, and Home Affairs Minister, was speaking at the Administrative Service dinner, during which 74 Administrative Service officers received their promotion certificates.

His remarks come at a time when both the public service and the public have been feeling their way forward on public engagement across a range of issues, including the clearing of graves in Bukit Brown cemetery to make room for a road, plans for the former Malayan Railway corridor, and where to site eldercare facilities.

Public engagement was one of the ways outlined by Mr Teo for meeting what he called the 'paradox of governance'.

'Governments all over the world are facing increasing demands to do more in some instances, but to do less in others,' he noted.

Rather than grapple with whether to do more or less, Government should 'focus on doing the right things, and doing these things right', he said.

The 'right things' for Government to do were to ensure a level playing field, to create a conducive environment to facilitate capability development, and to provide for the public good.

The first is required to safeguard the interests of the public. In areas where some companies may have monopoly power, Government would need to intervene to protect consumers, said Mr Teo.

On the second role, if Government failed to create the right business environment, infrastructure or education, Singaporeans' jobs and opportunities would suffer for it.

As for providing public goods, Government had to provide essential public goods that the people and private sector could not, such as national security or providing for an ageing population.

But the greater challenge as Mr Teo saw it was in performing these roles in the right way. This called for civil servants to take a long-term perspective, and ensure whole-of-Government coherence when complex issues no longer fell within neat domains.

Ms Karen Tay, 25, a management associate in the Ministry of Finance, said Mr Teo's speech resonated with her. 'There are no easy answers. We have to make trade-offs between the interests of different groups. But I think it makes it even more exciting to be working in the service at a time like this,' she said.

Do the right things and do them right
This is an edited excerpt from a speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in charge of the Civil Service Teo Chee Hean at the 2012 Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony on Tuesday.

WE ARE entering an era where governance is becoming more challenging.

Governments all over the world are facing increasing demands to do more in some instances but to do less in others. Or even more challenging, for the same issue, there will be some who want government to play a bigger role, while others think that government should take a step back.

For example, after the 2008 global financial crisis, many people called for governments to curb the financial markets and impose stricter regulations on financial institutions and products. On the other hand, others called for industry self-regulation, concerned that additional government intervention could stifle financial innovations and impede growth.

Here in Singapore, we often hear calls for the Government to do more for the disadvantaged. Yet, there are also community groups who want the Government to do less, and let the private and people sectors play a bigger role, as they are more flexible to individual circumstances and needs.

These examples illustrate today's paradox of governance: What should be the appropriate level of government involvement when an area of need arises? Should government do more, or less? Where does one draw the line between the two extremes of an interventionist and paternalistic government, and one that allows the 'invisible hand' to do its work and therefore may appear unresponsive to calls for government action?

This is a question which will never be answered once and for all. We will revisit challenges like climate change, threats to cyber-security or protection from cyber-bullying, areas in which there are no clear answers, no precedents.

Rather than grappling with whether we should do more or do less, it may be more productive for us to focus on doing the right things, and doing these things right.

Doing the right things

TRADITIONALLY, government plays three critical roles, as a balancer or regulator, an enabler, and a provider.

In many areas, the Government comes in to serve as a balancer or regulator, to safeguard the interests of the people. This can be seen at two levels.

At the broader level, in social policy, the Government has to find the right balance in its interventions - first, deciding whether to intervene in areas such as the labour markets or parenthood, and then deciding the right way to do so, such that the policy objectives are achieved while minimising unintended negative consequences and keeping within the overall resources that are available to the Government nationally.

Take low-wage workers as an example. The Government has always been concerned about raising their incomes, but for many years had focused on providing incentives for up-skilling, so that workers could secure higher value-added jobs. This had proved to be beneficial. Our workers responded well, their wages rose, and unemployment was kept low. However, as globalisation and technology advancements exacerbated income inequality around the world, the Government decided that it was necessary and timely to make a more direct intervention. But it was also important that the intervention be the right one. We did not want to inadvertently cause low-wage workers to lose their jobs by making it less attractive for companies to employ them. Nor did we want to create a draw on the government budget that might prove unsustainable in the long term. So it was only after studying many options and careful consultation and consideration that the Government decided to introduce the Workfare Income Supplement.

At the micro level, the balancer or regulator role is particularly important in industries where there could be some degree of monopoly power, such as telecommunications or power generation.

Football fans may remember the issue of exclusive Singapore broadcast rights to the English Premier League a few years ago. Some fans were upset about having to switch providers or get another set-top box. Should the Government really get involved in whether fans get their weekly dose of football?

But there was a broader issue at stake. Left to themselves, the industry players would seek to maximise value for themselves, even though it may mean inconveniences to consumers. So it was right for the Media Development Authority to step in to compel them to cross-carry programmes, taking care to do so in the right way.

Second, government as an enabler. In a well-functioning society, the private and people sectors are often in the best position to provide for people's needs. The Government can also come in to create a conducive environment so that desirable activities can flourish.

Getting this enabling role right is also crucial. Today, businesses in Singapore enjoy the conveniences of a well-oiled market economy, high-quality infrastructure and an educated workforce. We have consistently been ranked tops in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business survey. We have also stepped up efforts to encourage workers to continually upgrade their skills and abilities. Getting this wrong, for example, erecting barriers to protect uncompetitive industries, would impose unnecessary costs on businesses and ultimately affect Singaporeans in terms of jobs and opportunities. So, being well-meaning and wanting to intervene is not good enough. You have to do so in the correct way.

Government and the people sector will have to go through a mutual learning process to see how we can play this enabling role and strengthen partnerships further - which are the right areas, and the most appropriate ways of enabling the people sector.

Third, government as a provider. Even with vibrant and robust private and people sectors, there will always be certain societal needs that non-government players are not able to meet.

One such area is national security. The Singapore Armed Forces maintain a high level of operational readiness to protect our country against external threats.

Internally, the Home Team works hard to keep Singapore and Singaporeans safe and secure. While the community helps provide additional eyes and ears on the ground, the Government has to provide a high level of essential services to ensure peace and security.

There are also debates about the role of government as provider, in areas such as education, public transport, housing or health care. Singapore is not alone in this. In Western European countries, for example, the socialist model saw the nationalisation of provision of many of these goods and services in the 1950s and 60s. By the late 1970s, however, there were signs that nationalisation had gone too far and had resulted in bloated bureaucracies, poor service quality, and unsupportable demands on government budgets, requiring ever higher taxes.

Starting from Britain, privatisation of these public goods and services gathered pace through the 1980s and 1990s, and extended even to the Nordic countries. Of course, the most classic example is the old Soviet planned economies which eventually gave way to market-driven ones.

In Singapore, the Government has played a significant role in all these areas (education, public transport, housing and health care). But we have been careful to do so in an appropriate way, and have by and large achieved good outcomes. We will have to continually review and fine-tune our approach, as we face new issues such as climate change, an ageing population, and the need for better and more diverse life-long education opportunities. So these are the right sectors government should be involved in. But finding the right way to help in the provision of services in these sectors is not such a simple one.

Doing things right

KNOWING the right things to do is only the first part. The more difficult challenge is in doing these things right. This requires the Public Service to take a long-term perspective, and to work on a Whole-of-Government basis, in order to develop sound policies. It must also better engage the public in the course of its work.

Now, we can talk about policy formulation. I know that some officers, particularly the younger ones, see policy formulation as the ultimate form of public service, where they can exercise their minds, and do more important things. But policy formulation in the end has to result in execution. You cannot just have policy and not have execution. And the test of any policy is not in the intricacy and fineness of the policy, but when the rubber hits the road, whether it works when implemented and serves the purpose.

Take, for example, the twin challenges of Singapore's low fertility and ageing population. Without immigration, our citizen population will start falling by 2030; the size of our citizen workforce will start falling even sooner.

Clearly we must think long-term, plan ahead, and move in time, so that we can overcome the prospect of a shrinking workforce and possibly shrinking economy, while having to support an elderly population three times larger than today's. There are no easy solutions, and many of the initiatives will take time to bear fruit. For example, we need to ramp up the intake of students into nursing and medical training now, to have a large enough pool of health-care professionals to meet the increased health-care demands of the future. We need to restructure our economy, including raising productivity and redesigning jobs, so that we are prepared when our Singaporean labour force starts to age and shrink.

Such issues require a well-coordinated response across government agencies. Each agency must consider the wider implications of its policies beyond its own mandate, and work across organisational boundaries to deliver a suite of solutions that best meets the needs of Singapore.

This Whole-of-Government approach allows us to derive synergies, sometimes in less than apparent ways. For example, the Ministry of Education's efforts to encourage racial integration in our schools benefit from the Housing Board's ethnic integration policy, because most primary school pupils go to schools near their homes. So if our public housing estates were clustered along racial lines, it would not be possible for us to maintain a good racial mix in our primary schools.

Or take the example of our orderly and well-functioning city. While the Ministry of National Development, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and other planning agencies rightly deserve credit for this, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority also plays a key role because it keeps a close watch on our borders. Compared to many other cities which are not able to stem the large flow of immigrants from less developed parts of their countries, we are a city-state which has borders and controls. This is a huge competitive advantage for Singapore in our goal to be a modern, attractive city to live in.

But long-term planning and Whole-of-Government coordination is not a precise science, and we will not always get it exactly right. We have to assess the situation, adapt and fine-tune as we go along, and work together on a Whole-of-Government basis.

Pulse of Singapore

JUST as we keep our focus on Singapore's long-term interests, we must also have a good sense of the pulse of Singapore society. The Public Service does not have a monopoly on good ideas, and we can make better policies by engaging the public and seeking their views.

Public engagement should start from the point of policy design, and continue even as we implement these policies. At the policy design stage, engaging the public allows us to forge a shared mutual understanding with those who are impacted by these policies. By consulting various stakeholders, policymakers can better take into account their different perspectives and concerns. Explaining the constraints that we face can also help our people better understand the dilemmas faced in devising the policies. This engagement process will help public officers make better policy recommendations while getting better buy-in from the public.

When it comes to policy implementation, public engagement will help us to communicate our policies to the public better, and manage expectations. It will also give the public an opportunity to provide real-time feedback, so that we can adjust our policies or implementation plans if necessary.

Take, for example, the former Malayan Railway Corridor. Even before the land was returned to Singapore, the URA met key stakeholders to tap the many different ideas they had for the corridor and its surrounding areas. Several of these stakeholders later became members of the Rail Corridor Consultation Group.

There will be many more issues where the public will want to offer their views.

This provides opportunities for the Government to benefit from a range of ideas, minimise blind spots, and make better decisions to maximise the common good.

But it is often not possible to satisfy everyone. There will be competing interests and demands, some of which contradict one another. Often, there will have to be trade-offs and difficult decisions, which the Government must not shy away from. We all agree that we need facilities for the elderly, but these have to be built somewhere. To have an expanded MRT network, tunnels, tracks and stations have to be constructed. In the course of carrying out these projects, some Singaporeans will suffer inconvenience which cannot be fully mitigated, and come away feeling disappointed. But as we mature as a society, we should learn to accept and manage this, and not let it paralyse us from moving forward as a nation.

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