Innovation in action: Global Government Summit 2018, part 3

By on 09/05/2018
Yong Ying-I, permanent secretary, Public Service Division, permanent secretary, National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Office.

At the 2018 Global Government Summit, Singapore’s civil service leaders set out their approach to public sector reform. Then top officials from 11 countries bonded over a common challenge: how to create an innovative civil service when ministers are so often allergic to taking a risk.

“Singapore is an unlikely country of a tiny size. And we’ve been pushing for reform since the founding of our republic, because we need to turn constraints into opportunities,” began Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Division in Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office.

Speaking at the 2018 Global Government Summit – an annual Global Government Forum event, held this year in Singapore in February ­– Yong Ying-I was explaining the country’s civil service reform journey to top officials from 10 other countries. And though Singapore’s size, economy, culture and demographics put a unique slant on the challenges its public officials face, there were clear parallels between its response and the reform programmes set out by delegates from other nations – including John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service; and Andrew Kibblewhite, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Like New Zealand, from the 1980s Singapore went through a wave of privatisations and public sector devolution – with agencies given the freedom to achieve their goals in their own way. In the 2000s, the government focused on looking ahead and on empowering civil servants, creating horizon-scanning units such as the Centre for Strategic Futures and changing working cultures to ensure – as Yong Ying-I put it – that “every officer, no matter which level they work at, has the right and responsibility to make improvements – and that your boss is not allowed to get in the way!”

This push to empower civil servants has produced results, she added – transforming services such as Singapore’s prisons. The leaders of today “have inherited a service where for a long time there’s been a philosophy of wanting to continually reinvent our model, and one with the capacity for imagination and a spirit of resourcefulness.”

Keep on reforming

But things change, she continued: “Every year has its own challenges, and what’s worked in the past isn’t addressing our current or emerging needs.” Like the UK and New Zealand, Singapore found that its decentralised model was making it “hard to provide integrated solutions, or to realise synergies when the solutions cut across agencies.”

In part, the solution is a stronger centre – largely in the form of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). But she emphasised that the PMO is “not there to dictate: it’s there to orchestrate, to align, to enable and to support” – removing hurdles, providing resources and sharing expertise.

For example, the central agencies introduced legislation to get data and citizen information shared across government agencies. “The benefits of data-sharing to policymaking and delivering better services are obvious, but so are the risks of breach of privacy and data loss; so agencies have been very concerned about sharing their data,” she commented. The Bill “made clear to all our agencies and the public that agencies’ compliance with central data policies, and their sharing of data, is going to be the default position.”

Plugging the gaps

Another goal of reforms is to plug the gaps in services between public bodies: members of the public, said Yong Ying-I, have often complained of blurred boundaries between agencies’ responsibilities, and of their tendency to pass the buck. One result was the Municipal Services Office, which was tasked with identifying those gaps and allocating responsibility for closing them. With then-Head of the Civil Service Peter Ong brokering agreements behind the scenes, the office has shortened case handling times and improved public satisfaction.

Such reforms will only realise their potential, though, if civil servants embrace changes: as Yong Ying-I said, “public sector transformation only happens when our officers want to participate in making improvements real.” And she suggested that in recent years agencies may have concentrated too hard on hitting their own targets and operating autonomously. “The mantra is ‘one trusted public service with citizens at the centre’,” she added, setting out a set of initiatives designed to strengthen links across government and highlight the importance of involving citizens in service provision.

For example, the government sent quality service managers from various agencies away together for joint training programmes and study trips – giving them a space in which to build personal connections. “They got to know each other, and to this day they still meet for social get-togethers,” said Yong Ying-I. “So when issues come up at the boundaries between agencies, they pick up the phone, call their friend, and solve the problem.”

Delivery by citizens, for citizens

Meanwhile, agencies are being encouraged to involve citizens in service delivery. “The public service has a responsibility to build civil capacity for collective problem-solving,” she said. “And Singapore has recognised that we’re living in an era when citizens don’t just want to be served by us – they want to participate.” Examples include the roll-out of the Pioneer Generation Package: to explain this healthcare funding system to its elderly target audience, the government recruited 3000 volunteers from across Singapore’s communities – accessing the language skills and community links that public bodies sometimes struggle with.

Such initiatives rely on a creative civil service culture – and Yong Ying-I explained that leaders are building on the empowerment agenda to foster both a feeling of “constructive discontent” with the status quo, and a culture of “restless innovation”. Civil servants can access seed funding of up to S$70,000 (US$53,000) to “experiment with new ideas and develop prototypes.” The government is training 10,000 officials in data analytics, and bringing in specialist skills to bolster its delivery capabilities. And staff undergoing training are supported to form teams and work on real-world challenges.

These approaches to building an innovative culture got the delegates listening hard – for senior leaders are only too aware of both the need to develop new ways of working, and the political and cultural obstacles to doing so.

Experiments in experimentation

“How do you build public acceptance for running sometimes very expensive experiments?” asked Klen Jäärats, Director for European Union Affairs at Estonia’s Government Office. And Paul Huijts, Secretary-General of the Netherlands’ Ministry of General Affairs, noted that the public’s “tolerance for what are called ‘mistakes’ is becoming smaller. There’s not the business culture where you know that you’ll fail three times for every time you make innovation work – so there’s hardly any incentive for a politician to take a calculated risk.”

John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service, also worried that whilst “we’ve got to make our public sectors more innovative and agile, the incentives are all about not taking a risk.” In the UK, he added, the culture of sending “submissions” up to ministers sits uneasily alongside the need to encourage officials to develop and champion their own ideas.

In part, said Andrew Kibblewhite, Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, improving transparency can help reduce the bad publicity when projects go awry. His country’s government has taken to publishing six-monthly reports on its major projects – including a ‘traffic light’ rating on how well they’re going: “When you put this in the public domain, someone might notice that a project’s not going well, but you avoid the ‘gotcha’ moment when someone thinks they’ve discovered a mistake,” he said. “People know that nobody is perfect, and by acknowledging the problems you are to a degree normalising them.”

Political cover

Part of the solution, suggested Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, Canada’s Secretary of the Treasury Board, must be for civil servants to engage with the media and explain “what government work is, and how it’s changing” – including the need to trial new approaches, not all of which will pay off.

When the pressure is on, she added, politicians are sometimes willing to provide cover for civil servants engaged in innovative or untested projects. When the credit crunch hit Canada’s economy, she recalled, “government had to spend money fast – and we all know that if you’re spending money fast, you’ll make mistakes.” The prime minister understood the risks, giving “a speech about why we needed to act and why we needed to act fast; and he said clearly that there will be mistakes.”

“That once sentence was emailed across the public sector at the speed of light,” she continued. “And it liberated the public service. So when the mistakes are not as scary as the consequences of not acting fast, politicians come our way.”

Meanwhile, said Yong Ying-I, civil servants can innovate at low cost by running small pilots. The trick here, she added, is to find a way of testing whether the idea can be scaled up: “Sometimes the project works precisely because it’s small.”

The ‘innovation of action’

Ultimately, governments are big organisations that need scalable ideas: most innovations only become useful when converted into far-reaching transformation. “It’s easy to have ideas,” commented Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service. “But that thinking must be translated into doing. The innovation of action – people prepared to get it done and to own the outcome, for better or worse – is the big shift we’ve had to make.”

As civil servants grapple with today’s challenges, peering warily into an unstable and unpredictable future, they know that they must either become more flexible, more agile and more innovative – or be overtaken by events. And Leo Yip argued that where politicians won’t or can’t increase their own risk appetite, top officials should take ownership of the agenda.

“I think we in the civil service have to take on that burden of innovation and transformation ourselves,” he concluded. “People need to have the confidence and conviction to move first – and if things don’t work out well, to say sorry afterwards. It’s for the collective leadership of the public service to say: ‘Yes, this is something we want to do,’ and to determine the destiny of our civil services.”

This is part 3 of our report on the 2018 Global Government Summit. Part 1 covered an analysis of the challenges facing governments by Singapore civil service chief Leo Yip, plus UK civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni’s explanation of Britain’s reform journey. Part 2 focused on New Zealand’s civil service reform journey, with Andrew Kibblewhite – head of the country’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In in part 4, BCG experts and top officials discussed the opportunities and risks around artificial intelligence. Part 5 explores how governments can reconnect with disillusioned sections of the population. Part 6, the concluding section, will be published next week.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

One Comment

  1. Brad Bass

    09/05/2018 at

    I enjoyed this article. I have worked on both sides of the innovation fence, and working in a group that encourages innovation was a lot more interesting, and the level of staff engagement was higher than would be found on the other side. There are three points to highlight: one access to support for experiments, acceptance of failure and the small pilots at a low cost. However, to make this work, civil servants must be in a culture where they feel free to propose ideas.

    Not all innovations have to be directed to how government works. For example, smaller projects to develop innovative tools for research and analysis can also have an impact by providing the civil service an increased capacity to answer their own questions without always having to rely on consultants.

    Where will the ideas come from for these pilots. One option is to place civil servants with other partner organizations. Not only will this strengthen the partnerships, but each organization will provide a first-hand exposure to new ways of thinking about workplace culture, processes, service and administration.

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