Public Service Culture – Agility, Collaboration and Transformation Through Lifelong Learning (ACT)
Head, Civil Service
Fellow Public Officers
1. After two years of holding the Observance Ceremony virtually, I am happy to be here in person at the HDB Auditorium today with officers from across the Public Service. I understand many more are tuning in virtually. Good afternoon to all of you.
2. This simple act of gathering in person again did not come by easy. Public officers have put in endless hours of hard work over the last two years doing two very difficult things simultaneously. One, managing the current crisis and operations. Two, preparing ourselves, our people, and our country for tomorrow. Without your tireless hard work, tenacity, and resilience, Singapore will not be here today. Singaporeans will not be able to enjoy the simple things in life today. So thank you very much for all your hard work.
3. We are entering a new phase in our nation's development. And our starting assumption cannot be that the next 50 years will be the same as the last 50 years.
a. Externally, the geopolitical order is facing significant disruption and uncertainties. The international system of law has been fundamentally disrupted, and poses existential questions for small states like us.
b. The global economy and markets are also facing fundamental change. We are seeing shifts in global supply chains and reordering of the global economic order. It is no longer a given that the global economic order can be underpinned by the same system of rules and clear dispute mechanisms. After decades of low inflation and interest rates, countries everywhere are facing elevated levels of inflation, rising interest rates, and the risk of recession.
c. Other complex challenges are also afoot. The climate crisis is becoming more urgent with extreme weather patterns becoming a norm across countries. With globalisation, global public health risks like COVID-19 are also becoming more common and have the potential to fundamentally disrupt our lives.
d. Domestically, our demographics are also shifting with the ageing of our baby boomers and becoming more complex with people living longer. But therein also lies opportunities. Job patterns are shifting, and aspirations of our younger generations are also changing.
4. The Public Service plays an important role to steer Singapore as we head into this new era filled with uncertainties, disruptions, and complexities. To meet the challenges ahead, we must look beyond our structures and processes. We must focus, more fundamentally, on the culture of our Public Service. There are positive aspects of our culture that we must retain, and other aspects that we need to keep evolving and improving. Today, I will share three aspects of this – Agility, Collaboration, and Lifelong Learning.
a. Uncertainties Require Agility – In an era of greater uncertainties and change, no single structure and organisation can cater for all scenarios. We need to be agile in organisation and mindset to tackle challenges.
b. Complexities Require Collaboration – In an era where challenges are becoming more complex, no amount of individual capability is sufficient. No organisation will have all the skillsets and tools to overcome complex challenges. We need collaborative, multipronged approaches to tackle these multifaceted challenges.
c. Disruptions Require Lifelong Learning – In an era of constant change and disruptions, no amount of prior learning will be enough to prepare individuals and organisations for the challenges. We spend the first 15 years preparing our students for the next 50 years of their lives. Our measure of success is not how well they do in the first 15 years, but how well they will do in the next 50 years, and beyond. Likewise in the Public Service, no amount of upfront preparation will be enough to help us overcome the challenges in the next 50 years. It will require us to be agile, to collaborate, and more importantly, to keep learning.
Culture of Agility
5. Let me now elaborate on the culture of agility. In every crisis, there are also opportunities. In Chinese, crisis is “危机”. The “机” in “危机” reflects that opportunity is present in every challenge.
6. The Public Service must be agile in changing how we organise our structures, processes, and services to best meet the challenges ahead. The agility with which we can adjust and adapt will determine if we can seize opportunities within the challenges, and secure Singapore’s future.
7. Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of agility. We had to come up with new solutions and correct our course on the go, to cope with the ever-evolving situation. We were strengthening contact tracing capabilities; securing masks and vaccines; and adjusting safe management measures for the safety of our people as COVID-19 ebbed and flowed. We were able to do these in an agile and coordinated manner because of our early steps to form cross-functional teams like the Multi-Ministry Task Force and the Homefront Crisis Executive Group. Working together gave agencies a deep understanding of the challenges that we were all facing together. It gave us a deep sense of trust in one another. This is the “secret sauce” that allows us to be agile.
8. Beyond COVID-19, an example of how we are changing as a Service to be more agile is in the formation of ServiceSG. At ServiceSG Centres, frontline officers are cross-trained to deliver services across multiple agencies to citizens. Putting citizens at the centre instead of adopting an agency-centric approach, ServiceSG officers can adjust and adapt services for citizens in a more agile way, based on their needs.
9. Take Kim Ho and Viknesh Ramalingam, who are officers stationed at ServiceSG @ Kampong Chai Chee Community Club. They recently served a citizen, Mr L., who was just released from prison and reintegrating into society. They helped Mr L. with a range of services that he may not have been aware of, yet crucial to meeting his immediate financial needs. They helped him to set up a Singpass account, access his CDC and Public Transport vouchers to defray his immediate expenses. When they realised that Mr L. was facing difficulty with his job application, they went the extra mile to support Mr L. Mr L. was so appreciative that he returned with his ‘brothers’ to get help too! Each of the services initiated by Kim and Viknesh may have been a small action, but collectively they can impact the individual’s life in far-reaching ways.
10. At the individual level, officers must also be agile in what and how you do things within your scope. This agility to act stems from a fundamental understanding among officers of ‘why’ you do what you do, and the higher intent of your work. Agencies must help to create the environment for agility by explaining the higher intent to officers. Empower them to adjust their ways to serve Singapore and Singaporeans. If we can do that, we will have truly embraced the culture of agility.
Culture of Collaboration
11. Let me move on to the culture of collaboration. As complexity becomes the norm, individual public agencies will find it increasingly difficult to solve challenges on our own. No single agency has a monopoly of knowledge or know-how. We can all benefit from a wider range of views and perspectives. The Public Service must be able to collaborate across agencies and even beyond the Service to tackle the challenges ahead.
12. A case in point is climate change. Under the Singapore Green Plan, our goal is to bring Singapore’s emissions to net zero by or around mid-century. This is a complex endeavour involving many stakeholders working together. Many private industries are involved, ranging from power generation, transport, buildings, to waste and water. The journey to net zero also involves transformation in the lives of individuals and households. To rally the community to take action for sustainability, MSE, MND, MCCY, and PA have come together to implement the Green Action for Communities movement. The Long-Term Emissions and Mitigation Working Group is also connecting the efforts across parties within and outside of the Public Service.
13. Besides collaboration at agency level, all officers can also collaborate at the individual level. I encourage officers to always be open to collaborating with others for the greater public good. Starting from this year, each public officer can also use up to 40 hours a year to pursue developmental opportunities with the private, social, and non-profit organisations. Seize these opportunities to connect with and better understand your partners. This will pave the way for stronger collaborations down the road, for us to draw on their strengths and overcome complex challenges together.
14. The next lap of our nation building will not just be about how well we do as a Public Service. It will also be about how well we bring the rest of the country along with us, where everyone feels a sense of commitment in this journey ahead. It is not just about delivering for our people. It is about delivering with our people. So I urge leaders to work with your officers – identify the new partners that you have to work with and go forth to establish those partnerships. Figure out their interests, and their strengths and weaknesses. So that when the time comes, we can take a much more collaborative approach to overcome the complex challenges facing us.
Culture of Lifelong Learning
15. Let me come to my third point on the culture of lifelong learning. In an era of faster changes and greater complexity, capabilities and skills are becoming obsolete faster. To stay relevant, agencies and officers need a growth mindset to pursue continuous learning.
16. At the organisation level, we cannot afford to remain status quo and fall back on established ways of working. We need adaptable organisations, always learning and ready to take on the complex challenges of the future. Take security agencies, for instance. In their mission to keep our nation safe and secure, they not only have to constantly prepare to take on known threats, but also continuously learn to anticipate and adjust for evolving threats. In the past, the focus was on protecting against physical threats. Now, an increasing concern is with cyber threats. Security agencies need to learn new capabilities to tackle these new threats.
17. At the individual level, lifelong learning starts with a fundamental mindset shift away from the artificial divide between ‘work’ and ‘school’. Learning does not take place only during our schooling years. On the contrary, we should be seeking a new ‘work-learn balance’, where learning continually happens and is actively applied throughout our working life and beyond.
18. I was heartened to hear about our colleague Samuel Tan from IMDA, and how he exemplifies this spirit of lifelong learning and growth. Samuel seized the opportunity to pick up new skills and experiences through a year-long attachment to e-commerce company Shopee. Over at Shopee, Samuel’s Regional Business Intelligence team was tasked to identify and capture new opportunities and solutions across various markets. Working in this very data-centric organisation, Samuel learnt to work extensively with data for business analysis and solutioning. Being immersed in the industry also deepened his understanding of how tech companies were pushing boundaries and helping businesses grow and transform digitally. With the new skills, insights, and network that Samuel picked up at Shopee, he is much better equipped to drive digitalisation and tech talent development for our nation back at IMDA. Like Samuel, I hope each of you take charge of your own learning to grow and develop in your career. When you are growing as an individual and as a professional, I have no fear that you will not be able to contribute with your full heart and soul for our country.
19. Within the Public Service, we will push hard for lifelong learning and continual growth of officers. A major effort on this front is to move towards a competency-based system, where we translate changing business needs into job competencies, and support competency-driven growth of our officers. We have been laying the groundwork for this. In 2020, PSD introduced Our Core Competencies (or what we call the OCCs) as the baseline competencies that all public officers should have. By this year, functional competency frameworks that lay out the competencies that officers need to perform their functions, like policymaking, finance and HR, will also have been launched or refreshed. Together, these will provide a common language for officers to have better career and developmental conversations with your supervisors.
20. We have also built the Public Service Career Coaching Network of close to 350 career coaches. Apart from supervisors, these coaches can partner officers to identify your career goals and plans. Beyond formal training, we are also expanding the range of developmental opportunities to help officers upskill, reskill, and broaden experiences. For instance, you can learn best practices from other public agencies through the Short-Term Immersion Programmes. Or participate in Gig Work to contribute and hone your skillsets in cross-agency projects. Since the start of this year, we have launched nearly 750 of such stints.
21. I encourage all agencies and officers to take the time and effort to plan and invest in your growth. This is important for both the officers and organisations.
Value Proposition of the Public Service
22. To defy the odds of history and take Singapore to 100 years and beyond, we will need a strong Public Service workforce that is committed to build a better future for Singapore and Singaporeans. Our strongest value proposition as a Service is that we will stay true to our mission to serve Singapore and to take Singapore forward as one country. In the face of uncertainties, we will be agile. In the face of complexities, we will collaborate and bring everyone together. In the face of constant disruption, we will keep learning at the individual and organisational level.
23. If we have these values and ethos deep within our DNA, I am confident that we will have a higher purpose that can attract and inspire generations of Singaporeans to join the ranks of a Singapore Public Service that we can all be proud of. And finally, I want to thank you once again, for all that you have done throughout your professional career with us. For serving the country to enable Singapore to not only survive, but to thrive. Come whatever challenges, we know that we have within us the capabilities, the capacities, and most importantly, the will to defy the odds of history and to do even better.
24. Thank you very much for your service to our nation.