Singapore chief on the biggest challenges facing civil servants: learning pace and earning faith

By on 21/04/2021
Leo Yip, head of the Singapore civil service, addresses attendees of the Global Government Summit in 2020. This year's event was held online.

Many civil servants responded to the pandemic with enormous speed and innovation – and their populations noticed, said Singapore Civil Service Head Leo Yip at the opening session of the 2021 Global Government Summit. The challenge now is how to hang onto those gains. Elaine Knutt reports

“We have been going through a test of how well co-ordinated and aligned governments are,” said Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service. The pandemic has demanded high levels of collaboration across countries’ public sectors, he argued – “whether it’s between health and economic ministries; between the national and local governments; between political leaders and civil services.”

Welcoming senior leaders to Global Government Summit – the annual event for senior policy and organisational leaders operating at the centre of government – in January this year, Yip explained that the event would provide an opportunity to discuss how COVID-19 has re-written the script for governments, re-cast the role of the state, and re-shaped the responsibilities of civil servants. Addressing participants from 12 governments across Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia, he first invited delegates to celebrate the success stories of an extraordinarily challenging year.

“Agencies, organisations and ministries came together, fully mission-driven; walls and turf boundaries were broken down. Everyone is thrown into the same mission, driven by the same purpose, and suddenly there are no silos,” he said.

And in the absence of a global authority to lead the pandemic response, he praised the way civil servants the world over have successfully mounted their own “systems response” – aligning crisis management action across government’s many branches, from public health to economic support to digital strategy.

Don’t slip back

But Yip’s opening remarks also highlighted the next challenge for civil servants around the world: the need to continue to strengthen collaboration – across the public sector and with external partners – and to “lock in” the gains in pace, innovation and partnerships. “How could [we] lock in these gains for the future, in our civil services, of the agility that we have mounted, and build the institutional capacity for the future? How can we remain agile, even as we all have to manage and operate large bureaucracies?”

Crystalising the gains of the pandemic era will be vital, he told delegates, as nations prepare their responses to the post-COVID-19 world. “My question is how do we – as civil services, as societies and as countries – plan ahead to emerge stronger from this calamity? There will be a world beyond COVID-19; that we know. So what must we do in the midst of this pandemic to come out of this stronger?”

The Global Government Summit was the ideal gathering at which to discuss these questions. Despite its new home online, the event had much in common with its predecessors: the Summit provides an private, informal space at which central civil service leaders discuss the common challenges they face, sharing what they’ve learned from their own attempts to address them. It’s a global capacity-building exercise, said Yip: an opportunity to “bring senior civil servants together to share, to deliberate, to learn from each other’s challenges and perspectives, and to tap into the collective experience”. The Summit, noted Yip, also gives officials the chance to step back from day-to-day preoccupations and allow the bigger picture to come into focus.

“The Summit is a platform for us to learn from one another,” he said. “It could be best practices. It could include what’s worked well for some of us, what’s not worked so well, and lessons that we could draw. I hope that these two days will give us an opportunity to coalesce our experiences, our insights, our lessons – some of these acquired at high cost – and share them with one another to strengthen our collective response to this global crisis.”

From Ds to Ts

At the previous Summit, Yip explained, he had identified four agendas threatening governments’ ability to improve outcomes. These he’d described as the four “Ds”: declining trust, demographic change, disillusioned electorates and disruptive technologies.

This year, Yip offered a new mnemonic for the pandemic era in the shape of four “Ts”: test, trace, treat and trust. And while the first three focused on controlling infections and healing patients, the fourth is likely to leave a legacy long after the medical threat has been largely overcome. As Yip noted, public trust in those governments that have combatted the crisis well has tracked rapidly upwards in the past year, aided by unprecedented levels of intervention to protect people’s lives and livelihoods.

That upward swing in public trust has had to be earned: protecting people has been “a complex exercise, especially in the face of continual adversity. Governments and civil services have had to work hard, earning trust, sustaining trust, and not breaking trust,” said Yip. But it represents a huge asset – both underpinning governments’ work to address the pandemic, and providing a valuable foundation for the next set of challenges.

“This pandemic, I think, has been an exercise for governments in drawing on the bank of public trust,” he concluded. “But it’s also been an exercise in building and rebuilding that trust, in replenishing that bank.”

Although Global Government Summits are private events, GGF produces reports to share as much of the discussions as possible with our readers – checking before publication that participants are happy to be quoted. In three reports published over the coming weeks, we’ll cover the event’s main sessions. Visit https://ggs.globalgovernmentforum.com/ for more details about the event.

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