All together, now: Grounding the public service

Oct 28, 2015 05.54PM |

by Yoong Ren Yan

AT A speech last night, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told public servants to walk in the shoes of Singaporeans of different backgrounds. As problems get more complex and views become more diverse, the public service needs “strategic vision, deep capabilities as well as close and continuous connections to the ground.”

We had a bit of a déjà vu – haven’t we heard this before? It’s fairly common to hear commuters, for one, tell off our political and public service leaders for not taking the trains themselves. But as DPM Tharman’s speech shows, this sentiment is already being echoed by those leaders. And some changes have been made: more public service leaders are rolling up their sleeves in operational postings.

We’ve dug up a brief recent history of grounding the public service: for your necessary action, please.


Who? DPM Tharman

When and where? October 2015 – six weeks after GE2015, at the Public Service Leadership dinner, to 600 public servants

Grounding moment? “We must walk in the shoes of citizens from different walks of life whenever we can, both in the course of the public officer’s work and when we get a chance to volunteer on the ground. We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there.”

Example of choice? The Housing and Development Board gathered feedback door-to-door from residents affected by en bloc redevelopment, and appointed a ‘Journey Manager’ for each homeowner as a single point of contact to the G.


Who? Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, former Permanent Secretary, Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

When and where? July 2015 – a month before SG50, at the DBS Asian Insights Conference, to 900 leaders from the public and private sectors

Grounding moment? “When a young scholar comes back, he should not be sent to the Ministry of Finance’s Treasury division and be the regulator. He should really be sent to the EDB (Economic Development Board), or the Housing and Development Board, and serve an internship of maybe a year to learn the problems on the ground. Unless the civil servant knows the problems on the ground, he would become just a regulator. And regulators, there are too many (of them) in Singapore.”


Who? DPM Teo Chee Hean

When and where? April 2015 – three days after Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, at the Administrative Service dinner, to top civil servants

Grounding moment? “Mr Lee believed that public officers needed to understand the ground, in order to hold the trust of Singaporeans. In 1960, he told public officers that he expected them to know the problems facing citizens, whether they were city-dwellers, farmers, or fishermen. He wanted a Government that grows ‘from the ground up’, putting Singaporeans at the centre of all that they do.”


Who? Mr Peter Ong, Head of the Civil Service

When and where? March 2014 – after the conclusion of Our Singapore Conversation, at the Administrative Service dinner, to top civil servants

Grounding moment? “We also need to keep our ears to the ground to understand Singaporeans’ moods and sentiments and see the impact of our policies on their lives. Being closer to where actual public services are delivered will allow us to more credibly craft the right features into policies to benefit Singaporeans.”

Example of choice? A multi-agency team found that installing grab bars would minimise falls for elderly residents – about 24,000 residents have benefited. Moreover, top civil servants have more operational postings, “from overseeing career centres, to increasing the number of buses on our roads”.


Featured image Shoes Off SVP – Jasper Youth Hostel – Alberta, Canada – Summer 1990 by Flickr user Giorgio GaleottiCC BY-SA 2.0.

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