Change or be changed, Singapore civil service chief tells workforce

By on 27/01/2020
Leo Yip says the public service must continue to transform how it operates if it is to maintain public trust.

The head of Singapore’s civil service, Leo Yip, has called on his colleagues to come together as “one public service” and to push ahead with the Public Sector Transformation (PST) programme “or risk being ossified and forced to change by circumstances”.

During a speech at the Public Services Leadership Dinner on 17 January, Yip said that the PST requires civil servants to rethink service delivery, digitalisation, regulatory reviews, citizen engagement and building new capability. While progress is being made, he said, there is more to do.

To “effect deep change… we need to transform three ‘w’s: work, workforce and workplace,” he told the audience, which for the first time at the annual dinner included both administrative officers and senior public sector leaders.

Yip gave a number of examples of what had been achieved under ‘work’, focusing on the reorganisation of government services around citizens and businesses rather than around agencies. For example, citizens can now access services from 12 government agencies through the community hub-based Public Service Centre, while GoBusiness, a one-stop online portal, enables business owners to apply for licences in one place rather than interacting with the relevant agencies separately.

On workforce, Yip said that new ways of working require new skills and competencies, explaining that the government is working towards a system that “places greater emphasis on lifelong employability beyond lifelong employment – one that values performance, skills and competencies, beyond just years in service”. As part of this, he said, the government has taken steps to refresh the Core Competency Framework and will implement HR policy changes in the months ahead to expand the “range and depth of skills, upgrading opportunities”.

Speaking of a new effort to transform the public service’s work culture, both in terms of new physical workplace designs and work processes, Yip said bureaucratic procedures would be revamped along with the implementation of new workplace practices “to enable more flexible and collaborative work”.

“We want our future workplace to be more productive, agile and flexible,” he said. “This is where PST becomes real, relevant and relatable to our officers.”

Leadership development

The second half of the speech focused on leadership. A year ago, Yip commissioned a committee to review the public service leadership development programme. The review, which has just been completed, addresses “key areas such as nurturing more diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences in our leadership corps, and improving development pathways for our leaders,” Yip said. He said the government has accepted the committee’s proposals and that plans for implementing them will be shared with civil servants later this year.

He also said new competencies for leaders – including middle managers, directors, CEOs, deputy secretaries and permanent secretaries – have been drawn up to address the key challenges at each leadership job level and to strengthen leadership effectiveness.

“The new leadership competencies reflect the more diverse capabilities that leaders need, including the ability to influence a wider range of stakeholders, the ability to effectively operationalise and not just develop policies,” Yip said. The competencies form part of an updated framework which includes a list of ‘red flags’ – “behaviours and actions that can render a leader ineffective” such as lacking the courage to make tough decisions or “prioritising agency’s mission over collective outcomes”.

Regular 360-degree feedback will also be introduced “for all leaders at all levels, supported by coaching and other learning interventions”.

Yip concluded that rising anxieties, instability and unrest in various parts of the world “have been instructive for governments and public services” and that a “key lesson is the paramount importance” of maintaining trust in government.

The imperative for the Singapore public service is to “continually transform how we operate, how we are organised, how we serve Singaporeans and how we harness new tools and technologies, so that we can continue to deserve the trust of fellow citizens,” he said.

“We must push ahead with transformation on our own initiative, or risk being ossified and forced to change by circumstances. Deep and pervasive change can only happen if we take this journey together. Not just several ministries coming on board, or a few officers working on projects, or even as one leadership community, but as one public service.”

Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong also made a speech during the dinner. The PM focused on two key themes: building a “deeper and more diverse leadership corps”, and how the public service should work with the political leadership to deliver good government for Singapore.

Global Government Forum will be hosting two events in Singapore this week. The Global Government Leaders’ Forum, a half-day conference on 30 January, will feature civil service leaders from around the world speaking on digital transformation and environmental sustainability. And at the Global Government Summit, on 30 & 31 January, some of the world’s most senior public servants will explore the challenges faced by civil servants globally.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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