Working life can be like going through a series of breakups. You work in an office, build strong relationships, and then suddenly you’re off somewhere new.

This type of career path is increasingly common for Millennials, and government even has a scheme that rotates people to different sectors. High fliers work in different roles for three to four years at a time, building their expertise and insight.

That is exciting because of “the opportunity to try so many different things,” notes Charlene Chang of the Public Service Division. But “the one big drawback that I didn’t realise when I was younger is that you leave all the relationships that you build behind”.

These schemes can risk breaking the bonds between leaders and their units. But to ensure this isn’t the case, government has a dedicated unit that cements a common purpose.

As Senior Director of Development of Singapore’s PS21 Office, Chang oversees these initiatives. GovInsider discussed her views on the future of Singapore’s civil service, and had an insight into projects that will keep the country at the cutting edge.

Why was PS21 set up?

The PS21 Office was set up in 1995 to reshape a civil service that was extraordinarily successful, but becoming set in its ways. The unit encouraged new thinking and ensured closer collaboration across government. For example, it championed the creation of new structures like the Municipal Services Office, a central agency to give citizens a single view of government.

The unit challenges officials to take risks. “It’s about creating that safe space”, Chang says, so that officers can experiment and come up with new ideas. If officials have to get everything right from the outset, she says, it would prevent government from being innovative.

PS21 also champions cross-agency working. “We’re not positioned to seize opportunities if we’re not able to work more seamlessly”. It has created three flagship schemes to achieve its objectives.

1. Workplace by Facebook

As GovInsider revealed, Singapore Government intends to use Workplace by Facebook across all agencies to create an internal social network.

This system will build rapport and foster a community, Chang says. Officers have even used Workplace to share personal moments, like the Supermoon sighting, for instance. “I think in very small, cumulative ways, these things really contribute to community building”, Chang says. “You get to know a person, and the way he or she feels about stuff other than work, and that makes the bonds a bit stronger.”

Social networks can shift the workplace culture from one that is driven by competition, to a community-guided one, she believes. “You can have a portfolio of a lot of star performers, but if they don’t gel as a team, you’re not going to be able to bring the potential and the performance of the organisations to an even higher level.”

So far, take up has been positive. 82 percent of officers who have signed up are now active users, and agencies have slashed the number of internal emails by posting major announcements on the platform. This is particularly relevant given that the email system is being separated from the internet to prevent cyber hacks.

The government turned to Workplace after its own custom-built social media platform, Cube, failed to get popular response from officials. “It wasn’t a roaring success”, Chang admits, partly because it was hosted on the government intranet, and that limited accessibility. Workplace, instead, can be used on personal mobile devices.

The public service took a risk, and was “willing to admit that something’s not working well [and] learn from it”, Chang notes. But it took “a lot of courage from the team to say, ‘let’s close off Cube, and let’s move to Workplace’”, she says. Chang believes that the ability to be critical of mistakes “needs to be a mindset and culture that is pervasive throughout the public service.”

2. Share Your Skills

PS21 has created a platform for agencies to loan skilled officials to other units in need. The effort, called #ShareYourSkills is hosted on Workplace, and allows agencies to post adverts for specific talents they may require. Skills can range from organisational development, document translations to video production, says Chang.

Officers are matched to relevant jobs and – like AirBnb and Uber – both agencies and users are rated based on their performance. The initiative started in October, and has three clear benefits, Chang notes.

First, it maximises the resources within the public sector, Chang says. This can potentially cut the need for government to rely on recruiters and external suppliers.

Second, it allows officers to “seek fulfillment” in their passions and skills “beyond their immediate job scope”, she says. “Officers would not get paid extra for these, besides the intrinsic fulfillment that you get from doing this”, she points out. “We feel that increasingly, with the workforce of the future, that’s going to be very key. People say this a lot about millennials”, but Chang believes that the older workforce isn’t exempted from looking “for more than bread and butter”.

Third, it helps officers gain insights into another agency’s work, providing an alternative to secondments, interagency projects and cross-agency committees. For example, if “I come in and design a one day conference for another agency, I’ll have to get to know the agency’s work and corporate mission”, she says.

PS21 decided on a “free-market approach” to this, allowing it to be “user-guided” instead of posing strict checks and balances. The idea behind this was to empower individual officers to have the freedom to volunteer in activities they wanted to contribute in, she explains. “We didn’t want to stifle and kill it before it started”, so instead of setting fixed hours where they could help other agencies, they promoted “best practices”, such as telling “officers to have an open conversation with your supervisors about it”.

3. Makeathons

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The agency organises “makeathons” for public officers, gathering their ideas on how to improve public services. The events start off with a challenge that the government wants to address, where like-minded staff go through a “rapid iterative process of developing ideas”, and subsequently present their ideas to top officials, she notes. #ShareYourSkills was a result of the exercise.

PS21 then focuses on the delivery, “working with agencies on sponsorship and adoption of the projects”, she says. “The commitment or the pact that we have with officers is that, these, as far as possible, we will put them into action.”

Preparing government for the future

Chang’s unit has an eye to the future, considering the skills that future civil servants will require. Two skill sets are particularly relevant, she notes.

First is the ability to use data. “Increasingly, data drives a lot of our lives”, she says. “The comfort level of officers in dealing with data” has to change accordingly, compared to “what it was 20 to 30 years ago”, she adds.

Second, PS21 thinks that “curiosity” is a vital skill for public servants. An attitude of lifelong learning is “especially critical for the public service”, Chang says. In particular, officials must be prepared to adapt to rapid changes and disruptions brought about by technology.

The Singapore government is shifting gears to prepare for big disruption in the years ahead. “We’re looking into the next phase of bringing service delivery into the digital and data era”, says Chang. For instance, “How do we use data analytics to have more predictive and human-centric services?”, she asks. “These may be capabilities that individual agencies might find a stretch to develop”, but may be possible “if we optimise it from the centre”, she adds.

New business models have also “radically changed the employment landscape”, says Chang, moving the conventional model to a partnership model where job security and retirement benefits come into question.

The government wants to grow the mindset of lifelong learning and adaptability among its officials. PS21 has adapted, admitted mistakes and honed its approach – setting an example for others to follow.

Makeathon photo by Public Service Division (Singapore)