How Singapore designed citizen conversations

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Jill Wong, Senior Director, Resilience and Engagement Division, Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth.

New York Mayor David Dinkins once called his city a 'gorgeous mosaic' in light of the diversity of its vibrant population. Given Singapore's culinary obsession, the city-state would perhaps be best described as a 'glorious rojak' - a fruit and vegetable salad combining salty, sweet and spicy elements in a colourful blend of flavours.

Every element has its place - but how does Singapore ensure that all the voices of its diverse population are heard? The nation is turning to a “new governance approach, with Singaporeans partnering with the government, and with one another”, explains Jill Wong, Senior Director, Resilience and Engagement Division, Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth (MCCY).

MCCY started the Emerging Stronger Conversations, a group dialogue where citizens process how the pandemic has affected them, and discuss their vision for post-Covid Singapore. Wong shares Singapore’s plans for engaging citizens on a deeper level.

A new governance approach

The Singapore government has held similar conversations to discuss diabetes, work-life balance and sustainability, Wong shares. The Office of Citizen Engagement, which has been merged with MCCY’s Resilience and Engagement Division, previously worked with different agencies to explore new ways of connecting with citizens.

For instance, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Institute of Policy Studies brought together a Citizens’ Jury in 2017 to think about how to tackle diabetes as a nation. MOH has since implemented a number of recommendations from the jury. These include public outreach programmes in the heartlands and a diabetes awareness campaign for children, wrote MOH’s website.

More recently, the manpower ministry led a discussion about how workplaces can support families. The National Environment Agency is now leading a conversation on reducing the use of disposables, Wong shares.

Such approaches are becoming more common across government as officers become more open to new ways of engaging citizens, she adds. “It's not just, I'm going to put a paper up on my website and invite comments, or I'm going to just have a couple of focus groups to hear people's views.”

This type of citizen dialogue started with Our Singapore Conversations in 2012. “That experience was seen as really novel for Singapore, because it was the first time we had an open ended conversation with Singaporeans,” Wong notes. “Most of the time, when the government engages citizens, we have a specific question or problem statement in mind.”

But these open conversations had to lead to something more, the government learned. “What people felt was lacking was that translation to go, so what?” she says. “If we're going to be engaging citizens, there has to be a sense that we're not talking for the sake of talking, but it has to lead to concrete actions.”

There also has to be space for citizens to contribute. “It just can't stop with the conversations. People want to be part of the solution,” she notes.

Think, not just do

The Emerging Stronger Conversations builds upon these experiences. They provide a platform for Singaporeans to reflect on the Covid-19 crisis, and for policymakers to listen to the people’s concerns.

“When we're faced with a crisis, we of course need to take swift action to tackle the crisis,” Wong says. “But at the same time, we also felt that you really want to take a step back and reflect on what is it that we've learned.”

The Conversations take place over two hours on Zoom, with 50 participants at a time. Citizens first pick from a series of images and share how the picture represents their pandemic experience. They then talk about the opportunities they see for post-Covid Singapore, and how they can turn that into reality, in smaller groups.

MCCY conducts these sessions in multiple languages, so those who don’t speak English as their first language will still be heard, Wong says. The Ministry also worked with community groups who help lower income families or minority groups to invite participants. These groups can serve as “conveners” of people whom the government may not usually be able to reach, she explains.

These Conversations give the government helpful insights to citizens’ top concerns, says Wong. They have raised issues including costs of living, job security and sustainability, she shares.

What’s next?

These broad discussions will run until the end of the year. Afterwards, each ministry will organise their own conversations on specific topics related to their work, Wong says. For instance, the Ministry of Social and Family Development is organising a series of “Conversations on Women’s Development”.

Ministries will also form Singapore Together Alliances for Action in the next phase. These are networks of public agencies and community groups, which will work together to tackle prominent issues raised.

An Alliance focusing on youth mental health has already been formed, reported The Straits Times. More than 1,000 youths, mental health practitioners and parents will come together to find ways to better support young people.

The pandemic may be a global phenomenon, but each person experiences it differently. Singapore is home to all sorts of languages, cultures and backgrounds. The government is ready to listen to its people, to make sure its policies and recovery help different parts of the community.