Singapore’s secret for a resilient public service

By Shirley Tay

Interview with DN Prasad, Senior Director, Strategy, People and Organisation, GovTech; and Lee May Gee, Director of Public Sector Transformation, Public Service Division.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn,” wrote American author Alvin Toffler.

This quote sums up the lessons from last year, when the pandemic forced governments onto a journey of learning and iteration, says DN Prasad, Senior Director of Strategy, People and Organisation at the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech).

Governments are dealing with an increasingly volatile world where blueprints and linear approaches no longer work. How can they build a resilient and adaptive civil service? Prasad and Lee May Gee, Director of Public Sector Transformation at the Public Service Division (PSD), share more.

Citizen-centric collaborations

Public sector officials need to work effectively across organisations, Lee emphasises. “This is important because complex challenges do not respect organisation boundaries.”

PSD has formed inter-agency teams to innovate and test new ideas, she adds. These interdisciplinary teams “take the lens of citizens” to identify the pain points faced in interacting with government; pilot new ideas; and redesign programmes and services.

One innovation born from these interdisciplinary collaborations is the LifeSG app, Lee says. The app enables new parents to register their child’s birth and apply for related programmes easily. To date, over 80 per cent of eligible births are registered through the app.

Singapore is not the only one rethinking government structures to tackle the gnarly challenges of tomorrow. Taiwan is recruiting entrepreneurs and innovators under 35 as “reverse mentors” to ministers on matters like digital transformation, its Digital Minister Audrey Tang told GovInsider.

France is building ‘civil service startups’ that match up to four officials to form interdisciplinary teams. These civil servants work in agile sprints to test their products, and can “make a minimum viable product in less than six months with less than 200,000 euros”, said its Ambassador for Digital Affairs.

Lee also believes it’s important for officers to be able to make sound judgements even amidst uncertainty. This is a sentiment echoed by the city’s former Head of Civil Service, Lim Siong Guan.

A civil service can never really predict the challenges to come, but they can be trained to be comfortable with uncertainty. “I would think of it in terms of what are the characteristics that I require of my people, so that as the future unfolds – and there’s going to be surprises along the way – I have the capacity to respond,” he told GovInsider.

Singapore is looking to international and private partners for best practices, Lee says. It’s learning from Service New South Wales, a unit dedicated to making government services more accessible to citizens, for instance.

The country is also turning to New Zealand’s regulatory approaches, as the country ranked first in the World Bank Index for Ease of Doing Business, she adds.

PSD is learning from leading companies with progressive HR practices as well, “to draw inspiration for how we may reinvent our workplace policies.”

“While we are constantly seeking to learn from others, we need to think for ourselves, and adapt the models from other countries to our local context,” she says.

Digital training

Digital skills are the lifeblood of public officials today. Singapore hopes to help officers become comfortable with using tech and data to create citizen services, Lee says.

To this aim, it has launched the Digital Academy to raise digital skills of all public sector officers. 55 programmes are currently available, and 40 more will be offered by March next year, says GovTech’s Prasad.

One such course aims to equip directors-in-charge of digital transformation with the knowledge and skills to support the planning and delivery of digital initiatives, he explains. Another targets public officers interested in enhancing their data science capabilities, and helps them learn how to prepare, analyse, and visualise data with tools such as Python and Tableau.

One of the key design principles in launching the Digital Academy was that learning should be “blended”, Prasad says. Officers can attend lectures during office hours, or attend workshops and hackathons in their free time.

All civil servants are also required to take mandatory modules in cyber security and data literacy on the Learn portal, says Lee. Officers are posted and attached to private companies to learn how they use tech to deliver services or improve HR functions, and can apply for short-term immersion programmes at different public agencies.

Singapore’s got talent

How can governments develop rewarding, challenging jobs to compete with those offered by big tech companies? “The war for tech talent is very real, even for the public sector,” says Prasad.

However, there are “three compelling factors” for tech talent to pursue their career with the government, he believes.

First, tech hires are drawn to the call to create tech for public good.

Second, they have the opportunity to work on projects that are of national and public significance, such as Singpass and the Singapore Government Tech Stack that enables agencies to build digital services quickly.

Lastly, officials have plenty of opportunities to upskill and move within and across agencies, Prasad adds.

GovTech’s Deputy Chief Executive Chan Cheow Hoe told GovInsider last year that the Wardley Maps model inspires him in hiring. He looks for pioneers that will take risks and be trailblazers; settlers that can build structure; and town planners that can find ways to make processes faster and more efficient.

It’s particularly important to give pioneers the space to innovate and trial new products, he said. “That’s how we keep the innovation, the energy going. Young people love that, they always come up with all sorts of interesting ideas,” he shared.

Much experimentation and innovation will be required for governments to navigate through the uncertainty of tomorrow. Singapore believes an agile, tech-enabled civil service will be the way forward.