Friday 28 March 2014

Govt 'faces challenge to keep up public trust': DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Tharman: More competing interests and people's expectations are rising
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2014

IN THE face of a more competitive economic and political scene, the Government's challenge is to keep up people's high levels of trust in it, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told civil servants yesterday.

Doing so is increasingly difficult as there are more competing interests and people's expectations are rising, he said.

Speaking to about 300 civil servants at a promotion ceremony for its elite officers at the Marina Mandarin Hotel, Mr Tharman said the Government has to respond with confidence and consider alternative ideas with an open mind, but keep a "sense of balance and direction".

It has to meet rising expectations by improving public services and innovating where possible, he said, while explaining clearly to the public why some expectations cannot realistically be met.

He outlined three things policymakers must do to retain public trust and govern well.

These are: implement policies well and make sure they work on the ground; include the public in working out solutions; and invest in community life and the intangibles that matter to people's sense of well-being.

To implement well, policymakers must consult widely when crafting a policy, and put themselves in the shoes of the ordinary citizen - a point also made by the Head of Civil Service Peter Ong.

They must also pay attention to details, correct mistakes quickly when they happen, and explain policies in ways that help people understand them, he said.

The Pioneer Generation Package for citizens is a "live case in point", said Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister.

Calling it a "major and complex exercise" to implement, he said it involves reaching out to 450,000 beneficiaries, training health-care workers, and designing and integrating IT systems.

The Government has set up a task force led by Senior Ministers of State Josephine Teo and Amy Khor to coordinate the efforts.

"We must ensure that our pioneers and their families understand the benefits and are assured of the Government's special support for them, so that they never fear going for treatment."

Mr Tharman said there is scope to get more of the public involved in providing solutions, by involving people in giving feedback on local issues, delivering social services and crowd-sourcing for new solutions.

SPRING Singapore will pilot an appeals panel comprising business people for several of its assistance schemes, which could be extended to other agencies if successful.

A one-stop portal will bring together various agencies' crowd- sourcing competitions.

The final aspect of retaining the public's trust lies in the intangibles of well-being, he said. Besides good jobs and higher incomes, the Government must also pay more attention to shared green and blue spaces in the neighbourhood and a sense of community.

"These are things that do not have market prices, but they are no less important to the quality of life. We have to focus on the intangibles as we go forward," he said.

'Vital to listen to silent majority's views...'
... or very loud minority will shape policy, says top civil servant
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2014

WEEKS after Dr Beh Swan Gin became the Law Ministry's permanent secretary, he was tasked to oversee the reform of a law on Singapore's mandatory death sentence.

The experience in 2012 left an indelible mark on the 47-year-old.

He learnt how vital it was "to find ways to understand what the silent majority is talking about".

"Otherwise, your policies and laws may well be shaped by a very loud and noisy minority," he told The Straits Times earlier this week.

The change in the death penalty law since January last year gives judges discretion to impose a life sentence, instead of death, in certain instances of murder and drug trafficking.

But feedback showed a silent conservative part of society felt it "signalled a reduced commitment to law and order", he said.

Mr Beh and PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong were among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated yesterday at the Administrative Service annual dinner and promotion ceremony.

Mr Chew, 46, said understanding the needs and views of the public has been a "very big lesson" for him. Since taking up his present post in 2011, the former navy chief has had to tackle a series of severe flash floods in Singapore as well as the recent, worst-ever dry spell.

Underlying the important role of engaging the public, he highlighted two crucial measures.

One, having a central point of collecting information - where the public can also send details about what is happening where they are - is key in helping PUB decide how "to prioritise our response".

Two, the need to be transparent when engaging the public. "We need to lay out whatever information we have. And if the public is telling us (something), we better recognise it as something we don't know and pick up on it."

Dr Beh said there is a need to seek views in an in-depth manner as people get more involved and social media gets more popular. "You have to engage in deep conversations... you have to invest effort in doing that.

"Is it about having more presence on social media, more presence on the Web? To a certain extent yes but that's just superficial," he added.

A medical doctor by training, Dr Beh held various posts while working in the public sector.

These include being managing director of the Economic Development Board and executive director of the Biomedical Research Council in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

At the dinner, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam paid tribute to two recently retired permanent secretaries.

They are Mr Chiang Chie Foo and Mr Bilahari Kausikan.

Mr Chiang, who is now chairman of the CPF Board, was in the Administrative Service for 32 years.

Mr Tharman, in noting his "outstanding" career, listed several key positions he has held and his achievements while leading them.

These include being director of the Internal Security Department, where he strengthened its capabilities and operational effectiveness.

Mr Kausikan had a "distinguished" career at the Foreign Affairs Ministry for 31 years, said Mr Tharman, as he described his achievements.

Among them is the groundwork he laid for Singapore's historic election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations.

Policy, implementation both vital: Civil Service chief
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2014

THE Head of the Civil Service wants elite members of the service to be close to the ground so they will not only craft but also execute policies well.

Mr Peter Ong used the occasion of this year's Administrative Service dinner to highlight the importance of policy implementation, as the Government prepares to roll out new policies in the second half of its five-year term.

He said good implementation is needed especially as the environment is changing rapidly in Singapore, with more diverse needs and many different voices.

Policies have also become more complex, with a "constant surge" in transactions and feedback volumes. The time to roll them out has also shortened.

The annual dinner is also a promotion ceremony and this year, 66 administrative service officers (AOs) were promoted.

At the end of last year, there were 324 AOs, an increase of 4.5 per cent, the Public Service Division said. Last year, 24 officers joined the service while 10 either retired, resigned or transferred out.

Mr Ong said that to execute policy well, three things are needed.

The first is to pay attention to details by being close to the ground. The second is to work with non-government partners such as voluntary welfare organisations, restructured hospitals and vendors.

The third is to tap the wisdom of public sector specialists with deep knowledge.

Elaborating on the first, he said keeping one's ear to the ground is important to understand the moods and sentiments of Singaporeans and how policies impact them. Being closer to where public services are delivered also allows officers to put the right features in policies more credibly.

Mr Ong praised the implementation of the Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programme, which aims to improve the safety and comfort of seniors living in HDB flats.

Officers from the Ministry of National Development, HDB and Ministry of Health worked with occupational therapists to pilot the project and found that the height that grab bars are installed at is key.

So HDB trained the contractors to ensure each installation of a grab bar is customised to each senior living there.

"About 24,000 residents have signed up for the programme since its 2012 launch, demonstrating how attention to detail leads to practical benefits for our seniors," he said.

Mr Ong also highlighted the importance of exposing the AOs to operational jobs, such as putting more buses on the road.

There are now 27 AOs working in such jobs, and the aim is to have all AOs have at least one such posting in their careers.

Another initiative - the six- month Community Attachment Programme - has seen its participants quadruple from 10 in the 1980s to 40 this year, he said.

By year's end, 70 per cent of AOs are expected to have undergone this in their first 15 years.

Despite the more challenging environment, Mr Ong said that Singapore's civil service is starting from a strong base in policy implementation and is internationally recognised for this strength.

"We are a public service that can get things done. This can-do spirit must spur us on as we tackle new problems that confront us," he said.

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