Sunday 26 May 2013

'The civil service must know when to stand firm'

Rising expectations among the challenges, says civil service head
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 25 May 2013

THERE is a story going around the civil service of a person who goes to a police station and asks the officer to return his library book for him.

This extreme interpretation of the civil service's "no wrong door" policy is no tall tale, however.

Mr Peter Ong, head of the 136,000-strong civil service, recounts it to show how some citizens feel more empowered and, at times, more entitled these days.

In an interview to mark Public Service Week this week, he said: "My advice to colleagues is that we should deal with these demanding citizens in a courteous and civil manner. But at the end of the day, be firm.

"Obviously we will not allow our officers to be abused."

In his 21/2 years as head of the civil service, Mr Ong, 52, is confronting challenges that require him and his colleagues to question many old assumptions when designing policies and providing services to keep up with a changing Singapore.

These changes include an ageing population, a restructuring economy, rapid advancements in technology, a widening income gap, and a population with more new citizens and foreigners.

The pace of change is faster than anything he has seen in his career, he said, and he shares the "deep sense of urgency".

At the same time, people's expectations are rising and this has, in turn, resulted in more frequent criticism and even abuse of civil servants, he said.

Some expectations, however, should be met because the needs have changed, Mr Ong said.

Citing health care, he noted that the Government is going to increase its share of health-care costs and looking at greater risk-pooling.

But the civil service also needs to know when to stand firm. Often, the situation may not be clear-cut, he added.

In engaging citizens, civil servants need to figure out what they are hearing: Is it a complaint, a real need or even realistic?

At the same time, many people also tell them "the policies are correct, stick to it, don't change", he said.

For Mr Ong, who is also Permanent Secretary for Finance and for special duties in the Prime Minister's Office, the bottom line is that Singapore must be able to pay its way in meeting these expectations.

"It must come through some form of taxes... I think that's a big reality check," he said.

He acknowledges that Singaporeans may tire of hearing the word trade-offs, but there is no running away from the need to debate and discuss them seriously.

"We don't operate from a situation of infinite resources, so we need to ask: If we meet this need, are there other needs we are not meeting?"

The solution he has outlined for public servants is to change the relationship between the Government and the people, and "put citizens at the centre" of their policies.

It needs to shift from "Government for the people" where the Government makes sure the needs of the people are met, to "Government with the people" where people collaborate with the Government to find solutions.

To illustrate, he cited the "Do the Mozzie Wipeout" initiative to battle dengue. People, not just the National Environment Agency (NEA), have to do their part in ensuring they are not breeding mosquitos.

It is a more sustainable and more inclusive approach. Another imperative is to better understand the ground.

No longer can policies be implemented for the average Singaporean or the Singaporean in the mid-point of a range.

"Distribution matters," said Mr Ong.

Hence, high-calibre civil servants are being sent to the ground, to man community development councils where their encounters span a wide spectrum of Singaporeans.

Two years ago, he also asked all the agencies to send their officers out to find the top issues that people face on the ground at municipal level. They found four: cleanliness, interaction with animals, local infrastructure and noise.

To address them, there is now a public cleaning department which has centralised all contracts under NEA so that it does not matter whose land the litter falls on.

People have to dial to only one hotline for all animal issues, and there are more sheltered linkways being built to MRT stations. How to deal with noise issues, however, is something still being worked on, he noted.

The changing profile of Singapore has also led to greater political contestation, and one question that arises is whether Singaporeans can count on the civil service to keep the machinery of the Government humming, should there be a change in government.

"The mission remains the same," he said.

"We work together with the elected government to serve the long-term interest of Singaporeans and Singapore. Of that, we're very clear.

"We do that while keeping true to our values of service, integrity and excellence. This mission and our values must always continue to guide us."

And with increasing pressure on civil servants, Mr Ong said that he and his colleagues have had to develop "quite a bit of thick skin" to deal with all the complaints and criticisms.

But he added: "I meet many of my counterparts and they say: 'You have it easy, wait till you come to my country'. So, well, we take it in our stride."

Population White Paper 'never meant to predict future'
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 25 May 2013

THE backlash against the White Paper on Population was "unfortunate", said head of the civil service Peter Ong, and there are lessons to be learnt.

But he stands by his officers who worked hard on the plan and insists that it was never meant to predict the future. Rather, it was intended to look at all the factors that could affect Singapore in the future, and to engage the public in deep discussions about the trade-offs, he said.

But the public outcry against having a 6.9 million population figure in 2030 highlights two lessons for the Government.

One, it could have better anticipated that one parameter, the 6.9 million figure, could draw attention away from everything else.

Two, the timing was off.

The paper should not have been launched at a time when many issues on transport and housing had yet to be settled.

"We really intended it to launch many serious and deep conversations on the structure of the future economy that we need to have... very serious existential issues. However, they were all swamped by the attention on that one figure," he said. He added: "There were pressing current issues that were not fully addressed yet, so it was very difficult to have a conversation about the future."

The White Paper led to a heated debate in Parliament, and two protest rallies at Hong Lim Park in February and on Labour Day this month.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong later said his Government was not planning on ever reaching the 6.9 million figure, and would leave it to the next government and people to decide for 2030.

Mr Ong noted that his officers had engaged the public for more than a year before the release of the paper. To criticisms that the paper was not well researched as it lacked citations, he said it was a "matter of presentation".

He said: "Just because something has no citation doesn't mean references and research were not done. If we came up with a whole list of citations, then who would read those? The average Singaporean?" He added: "We were trying, at the end of the day, to think about what might happen in 2030. It was not meant to be a deterministic or predictive exercise. I don't think any of us are smart enough to predict (the future)."


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