Speech by Mr Desmond Lee at the Public Sector Transformation Awards Reception 2020
AT THE PUBLIC SECTOR TRANSFORMATION AWARDS 2020
8 JANUARY 2020, GARDENS BY THE BAY
Head of Civil Service
Ladies and gentlemen
1. Good afternoon and a very happy new year to everyone.
2. I am delighted to be able to join you at this year’s award ceremony, on the cusp of the new year ahead of us, and I would like to start by congratulating the 60 recipients of the Public Sector Transformation Awards. I have looked through a number of the profiles and stories of what our award recipients have done, and they have really inspired me. You applied your mind to problems, you have tried new approaches, you looked at what has always been the way you have adopted and you have broken new grounds and taken some risks to do things differently. And in so doing, you have contributed to making this Public Service a better one in order to serve Singaporeans more effectively and to serve them better.
Innovation as Second Nature
3. We are at the start of a new year and a new decade. It is a time to reflect and to make new resolutions, what we want to achieve in the coming years. The currents that affect other parts of the world also impact us right here in our city. For example, an ageing society that places greater demands on our health and social services; economic challenges and potential downside risks, and great uncertainty in light of the geopolitical climate; technological disruption to jobs, impacting people, creating uncertainty; millennials’ aspirations and economic resources that differ from those of the baby boomer generation.
4. Therefore, these awards are timely. That as part of a public service that transforms itself continuously, we hold up fine examples of men and women amongst us in the public service who have done well. They have worked quietly and worked hard, applied their mind and innovated the way we have done things. In doing so, they have served Singaporeans better and inspired colleagues by going beyond the call of duty and living out the motto of Integrity, Service, Excellence in the day to day work that we do.
5. We hope that innovation and good service ethos becomes second nature for all of us in the Public Service. For students, MOE has introduced the phrase “Learn for Life”. It is a good philosophy for us as well, whatever our role in the Public Service. We know that policy innovation is not always easy. It may sometimes involve a fundamental rethink about how we do things, how we operate. And, we must have the courage to depart from tried-and-tested paths. I know it is tempting to accept the status quo and to carry on doing things the way they have always been done, and that it is challenging to depart from the status quo to try to break new ground. But you have, and this is why we hold you up as champions of innovation and service at this celebration today. The “Dare to Do” category in the Public Service Transformation Awards recognises those who amongst us who demonstrate this Dare-to-do spirit. The winners, such as the New Clearance Concept team from ICA and Mr Li Qiming from PUB, were gutsy to try new things. I hope that in time, this culture of breaking new ground, innovating and learning will become an even more ingrained part of our Public Service DNA.
6. These awards are not just an encouragement to you and your colleagues to be prepared to innovate and try new things and to push the service quality boundaries, but also an encouragement to bosses that these are the kind of Public Service officers that we would like in our teams.
Be Citizen-Centric, Instead of Agency-Centric
7. Today, let me just take a few moments to describe two elements that I think will be even more important in the next phase of transformation in the Public Service, as well as the innovation that we would like to see.
8. The first element is for us, wherever we are in the Public Service, whatever role we play, to integrate what we do so that we can be even more citizen-centric, instead of agency-centric.
9. The second is the need for us to build capabilities for partnership; partnership with our people because as a Public Service, we serve the public. But in order to achieve that, especially for increasingly complex challenges, we need to be able to partner people on an equal footing and trust their instincts as much as how we trust those of our colleagues. This is a skillset we will need to hone in the years to come.
10. Let me begin with the first - citizen-centricity. In the early years, we needed to deliver important public goods - education, healthcare, housing, sanitation and so on - to improve people’s lives. There was a sense of urgency to do so. Therefore, having strong, competent and effective institutions to pursue policy objectives was key. We had to come up with the policies, address the critical needs, move quickly, implement well and move onto the next challenge.
11. But this strength can be a double-edged sword if each agency focuses on their own resources, policies, and objectives. We risk looking at issues and not people. We need to look at citizens’ needs not through a narrow policy lens but to instead appreciate the difficulties and challenges that they face, in a holistic manner. Often, that will bring us to a terrain of issues that may be well beyond the ambit of our policy objectives, beyond the ambit of our agencies, branches or divisions’ scope. That just allows us to recognise that we have a mission to solve a particular issue together and therefore, we have to partner other agencies to help address the issues holistically. We must therefore go beyond our own organisations and unit to ask how citizens experience our public services as a whole, and what their pain points are.
12. I am glad that the Public Sector Transformation effort recognised this several years ago. We have promoted Service Journeys for enterprises and citizens. More than 3,000 officers across the public service received training in the Service Journey approach. 170 Directors also participated in the Engagement Immersion Programme for Leaders, where they experienced frontline services and interacted with citizens in different ways.
13. Recent initiatives have also placed our citizens at the front and centre. For example, Moments of Life, a multi-agency project which consolidates information for citizens across all stages of life, on a single digital platform. I think this is ground-breaking and transformative. I hope that this is an innovation that will enable our citizens to access our schemes and services at a push of a button, in a way that has never been done before. Another example is GoBusiness, which guides business owners step-by-step to apply for the licenses they need instead of needing them to decide which department they need to go to or what licenses they need before they can proceed to the next. A third example is SG Enable’s new online portal, The Enabling Guide, a first-stop disability service and information platform for caregivers to find help easily. In the past, caregivers and persons of disabilities will need to look for the specific services that they require. Taking a client-centric lens and looking at this from the perspective of the caregiver pushed SG Enable to consolidate the schemes and services not only within government but across our partners in the disability sector in a way that presents itself more intuitively to the service user and to the policy owner so as to enable them to get the services and support that they need for the benefit of their families
14. We can build on top of this to do more, and do better. By “flying through” citizens’ experiences, we can better experience what our citizens feel along the service journey, and find meaningful touchpoints and gateways for us to be able to deliver that information and make available the service, and therefore bring relief and support in a more immediate fashion. Seeing our Public Service programmes and services from their angle opens up opportunities to improve our processes using data and technology. It allows us to weave plans and interventions across multiple agencies, to support citizens’ needs more comprehensively.
15. We are all in our different agencies doing our job, pursuing our mission well, innovating within our agencies but increasingly, it is that citizen-centric ethos that will enable us to innovate across departments and agencies. In fact, many agencies have already won awards for Public Service Excellence for good work that the Ministry does. We often find that our colleagues will bring along their partners from other ministries to receive the award because many of these innovations that we pursue are increasingly citizen-centric and involves multiple agencies coming together to deliver a service. That is the first element - working together and integrating together across a complex organisation as a Public Service and delivering things better to citizens.
Strong Partnerships and Singapore Together
16. The second element in our next phase of innovation is captured in the Singapore Together movement, which DPM Heng launched around six months ago. It means developing stronger partnerships with Singaporeans, to shape our nation and future together. This means meaningfully opening up more spaces for citizens to work with us - space, not just physical space but empowered space. Moving further upstream, instead of consulting people when we come up with solution, can we move further upstream and dream alongside our partners? Build trust and relationships and co-create solutions to solve our problems in a different way. We should enable citizens to work with us, to create and deliver policies and programmes together with Government, or to build consensus. Engagement exists along a spectrum. Different issues lend themselves better to different types of engagement. Consulting people is one form of engagement but co-partnership, co-operation, collaboration, co-solutioning, all these lie at the other extreme end of the spectrum. It is the whole range that we seek to exploit, to use, to enable so that our solutions for the public as the Public Service involves greater stakeholders to work with us to solve. On one end of the spectrum, the government steers and controls the process. We get feedback through public channels, evaluate the feedback internally, before publishing our response and following up through action. On the other end of the spectrum, the government designs, develops and implements policies alongside our partners. Here, volunteers and non-government partners contribute as equals to drive the initiatives together with our public officers. The Singapore Together movement hopes to involve more citizens on the end of the spectrum where they can actively participate, feel invested to tackle the issues and feel invested in the solutions that we drive together on the ground.
17. We cannot have a formulaic approach towards creating and sustaining partnerships. Rather, we must constantly keep an open mind - both within the Public Service, and on the part of citizens. All of us will gain fresh insights when we communicate, debate, and challenge each other. Just as iron seeks to sharpen iron. This process also builds greater empathy and trust. Even better yet, respect, collegiality and friendship over time. In fact, having that element of trust will enable you to build a relationship and understanding that will enable you to take the partnership even further and take greater risks to achieve even more.
18. Partnering will require us to build new capabilities. It will require us to develop structures that are suitable and facilitative of such an approach in the Government. We need to retune our instincts and mindsets so that partnering our citizens is one of the first questions we ask upstream. Ask who your potential partners might be, and what part citizens and stakeholders can play. Bear in mind that our best partners might be those who begin with a different view from us - sometimes we persuade them, sometimes they persuade us, sometimes we work with each other to come up with a totally novel solution altogether. Take the time and effort to build relationships with current and future partners, and involve them early. As we build confidence and skillsets, keep growing those partnerships and find new people that can work with you and give you fresh perspectives that will enable you to have a greater range of solutions to tackle the challenges of today and of tomorrow.
19. The Public Service has developed a range of programmes and platforms to support this shift, including the Partnerships and Engagement Network. This Network is a community of practice and learning that meets twice a month. MCCY also has central learning resources, just-in-time training, grants and digital tools1 available to support agencies. I encourage you to make full use of these tools to enable you to build on top of what you have achieved today. Leadership plays an important role in encouraging and enabling public officers to take these important first steps. And so our bosses here seated among us, your leadership is critical because you send the signal to the rest of our agencies, divisions, and branches that this approach is the one that we want to take. I ask everyone here to step up to partner with citizens more deeply and directly.
Transformation of the Social Sector
20. Let me close by describing briefly how these two elements of integration towards citizen-centricity on the one hand and partnership to find solutions for social problems play up in the work we are doing to strengthen and transform our social services. And although I come from the perspective of MSF, you’ll find that this work requires so many agencies to come together in order to make this happen.
21. We begin by recognising that if we look at issues from an agency lens we risk missing the big picture of the challenges that families face. In the social sector, when you talk to social workers, they always tell us not to look at the issue but to look at the family as a whole. Doctors in the Ministry of Health and the healthcare sector tell us: Don’t just look at the symptoms or the illness, look at the patient as a whole. If you listen to social workers they tell us that the vulnerable in our community face multiple complex and interrelated problems - addiction, offending behaviour, mental illness, disability, divorce, family violence, lack of opportunities, lack of skills. They all are interrelated and to be able to help tackle the challenges that some of the families in Singapore face requires the effort of more than just one agency.
22. This need for us to integrate plays out in the way we have been strengthening our social sector, bringing together multiple agencies into a room like this. Not just in one place, but all across Singapore. The SG Cares Community Network holds meetings in every single town across Singapore, bringing together social agencies, healthcare agencies, community partners, religious organisations and ground-up groups. By bringing people together, it creates an opportunity for innovation and new and novel ways of problem solving. It allows us to harness the strength of information that we come together to share, to identify trends and problems besetting some of the families in our community. It allows us, most importantly to adopt the other element, which is that of partnership - to come together, solve problems not just through our agency but by working together with multiple agencies. The underlying ingredient that enables this to succeed are not rules, SOPs, technology or data sharing. The important ingredient is of building relationships of trust with our fellow partners. Sometimes, this requires us to work better with our colleagues from across agencies. Doing so will make or break the citizen’s experience - whether they receive the help they need to “bounce back”, or whether they “fall through the cracks” as we often hear from time to time.
23. We have improved our systems and processes but our next phase of innovation and transformation requires us to build relationships of trust with colleagues across different agencies. More importantly, with our partners in the community who may be initially skeptical but I think we can win them over by working side-by-side with them to tackle the problems that our families face.
24. Five months ago, we also launched the initiative known as the PEERS Network - a coming together of equals, not just government agencies, but charities as well as religious and secular organisations. These organisations have been working hard week after week to reach out and befriend people who have fallen through the cracks who end up sleeping on the streets due to the challenges they face at home or personally. By partnering them, we find that it opens the gateway for us to reach out to people who are in such a dire situation. On the other hand, when they partner us and the agencies that represent the public sector, they find that they are also able to help resolve some of the problems facing the friends that they have been befriending and supporting. That kind of relationship is symbiotic, built after many months of trust building, and it enables us to provide a solution that is quite different from the solutions we provided before. This partnership involves 22 community and four government agencies, and we are involving more who want to come onboard. Close collaboration amongst the members means that we are better able to support rough sleepers, help them move off the streets and rebuild their lives. In the same way, we hope to partner more businesses, schools, grassroots organisations, charities, religious organisations, to do good together.
25. Thinking from the perspective of our citizens, and learning how to partner non-government organisations, must become second nature for us in the public service. When we do this, innovation will thrive. Our journey of Public Sector Transformation will be even more exciting. I thank all winners today for being such fine examples of public service innovation, excellence and transformation. I hope that the bosses in e room will hold them up as examples for fellow colleagues to emulate. I think we will celebrate the day where there are so many award winners that public sector innovation and transformation becomes ingrained into our day-to-day. On that note, congratulations and best wishes to all our 60 award winners.
 e.g. a volunteer management system, crowdsourcing portal, and community grants portal.