I was fired. So were all of my colleagues. I re-read the email just to be sure that there hadn’t been some ghastly mistake.
That was three years ago, when my previous employer went bankrupt, and the day before I started a publishing business called GovInsider. I often reflect on the series of accidents that led to its coming into existence.
Starting this business was a peculiarly Singaporean experience. By that, I mean that it happened in a way that I don’t think would have been possible elsewhere. We were reliant on a highly-networked city state; a business culture where it’s relatively easy to secure introductions; and digital society where marketing gets read and shared rapidly.
Our first advertisers joined us after seeing something that I wrote on Twitter. Our first investors came on board after reading one of my LinkedIn posts. Our first interviews came from people in government willing to say “Why not?” and give something a go. They were all people who I had bumped into in my first year here.
Singapore’s strength is its ability to foster serendipity – success through chance. Things can happen in a small nation that can’t happen elsewhere. We meet new people; news travels quickly; networks form rapidly.
But I wonder whether there is more to do in civil society and government. How can public servants, for want of a better phrase, get lucky more often? How do we create the space for serendipity – for people to try things out, get things wrong, and then blunder into new opportunities?
Some of the best recent government innovations were accidental. Take Estonia’s now-famous e-residency scheme, which has branded the nation as a govtech leader. Former Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said at a GovInsider summit last year that officials were noodling around with a “hobby” and then decided to give it a shot. This hobby caught the public’s imagination, and became a national branding triumph for a tiny nation.
“Some of the best recent government innovations were accidental.”
One person who certainly knew about branding was advertising tycoon David Ogilvy, who once quipped that “the best ideas come as jokes”. So how do we joke about the future of the Smart Nation – the national brand for Singapore’s mission to continually reinvent itself?
I believe that there is one major obstacle to overcome: the culture of outrage that permeates our social networks. Last year, we saw plenty of flashpoints – mostly on Facebook – that caused officials nervousness over whether to try new things.
This is not just a local problem. Academic Beth Noveck refers to a global “pandemic of distrust”, and officials must now closely worry about how an issue will play on social media when they pitch it. If Singapore is to increase its ability to stumble on new opportunities, it needs to ensure that citizens are comfortable with failure and messing around a bit.
Fortunately, where this is a global problem, there are solutions being trialled across the world that could help Singapore build social resilience.
First, it could ensure greater inclusion in the policymaking process. For example, in the digital space, Singapore could channel some of the thinking behind the UK’s Good Law initiative. This envisaged wiki-style White Papers where citizens would comment on clauses, allowing machine learning to assess the unpopular sections in real time. This opens up the legislative process, harnessing technology to get an understanding of difficult parts of the law.
Second, the nation could deepen citizens’ trust by borrowing from Barcelona and Estonia. They have pioneered the principle where you see which public agency has used your data, and how it was used. Citizens are comfortable with greater data sharing when there is greater clarity on its purpose.
This, logically, could be extended to public money – tax statements could show a breakdown of how your income tax supported Singapore. Further, there could even be the option to vote on the allocation of a small fund as part of this process, choosing a worthy cause and ensuring continued ownership and engagement in the process.
Third, government can reverse the relationship between citizens and the state, with citizens supporting government and boosting its effectiveness. Buenos Aires launched an ‘Agents of Innovation’ programme, calling on citizens to share their skills and help train civil servants. This ensures social resilience, shared responsibility for the success of government programmes, and allows government to rapidly adapt to a changing world.
Fourth, it could adopt a proposal discussed by the European Union for the 2016 Tallinn Declaration. This would have seen governments agree to set up central units to oversee user-centric public services. These would be tasked with setting standards for the best ways to engage citizens, experimenting with new approaches to include them, and coordinating that work across government. Continued efforts to include citizens will allow Singapore greater space to mess around and find new opportunities.
Much like this piece, the roads we take need to meander a bit. I’m hugely grateful that I came to this country; I’m in the world’s public policy laboratory, and it’s a joy to watch new ideas develop. But only through continued experimentation, inspiration and a spot of serendipity, will Singapore maintain its position as an entrepôt of enterprise.
This essay was first published in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take. As Singapore turns 53, the book includes 53 reflections on the journeys and paths we take, as individuals and as a society. The book can be purchased at bit.ly/2MIlUFg.