By Howard Lee
“The call for a "culture shift" raises so many questions that I don't know where to start.”
This was a response I received to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement during his National Day Rally that the government will try to encourage a “culture shift” in the way we hire people, such that everyone is given an opportunity to move up.
I let the truth of that answer sink in for a while, particularly in relation to what the PM said about the public service:
“The public service can and will do more. We will put more weight on job performance and relevant skills, rather than starting qualifications. We will merge more graduate and non-graduate schemes to give everyone the same opportunities on the same career track and we will promote non-graduates more quickly to what used to be considered graduate level jobs, once they prove that they can do it.”
To be brutally honest, among all the things that the public service can set an example for, fair progression is not one of them. In fact, the PM would do a lot better if he were to look at how this is done in the private and NGO sector, where survival instincts or just the base need to have the best people in the right jobs has led to, at times, a complete disregard for qualifications in preference for individual capability.
Why then is the public service, more critical than any economic sector, lagging in this aspect? Indeed, the issues are complex, but if I have to pin it down, I would focus on two: Ignorance about talent, and the reluctance to take risks.
Opportunities vs talent
“…we need two strategic factors which will help everyone to achieve their potential. One, you must have economic growth to create opportunities for our workers to rise. Companies have to be able to prosper, investments must still want to come to Singapore. We must have growth in order to look after our people well. So, we have to be hard-headed in order to be good-hearted.”
Sadly, the first condition that PM Lee paints as necessary for this “culture shift” ironically demonstrates how far we are from realising it.
The concept that we can only have progression (or progress) when we have opportunity is basically another way of saying that opportunities are limited. This is a narrative of scarcity: We can only give that promotion to well-deserving individuals, if the opportunity presents itself.
When exactly will that opportunity present itself? If an employee has been performing his/her work, as outlined in the contract, diligently and consistently, what right does an employer have to replace him/her with someone else?
So what then does the PM mean by being “hard-headed”? Does it mean that an employer should kick out someone who is doing his/her job, because there is someone else, preferably not as well qualified, who can do it for lower pay or longer hours? Perhaps it means an employer might have at the ready someone who is willing to be exploited more than the current job holder?
To suggest opportunities as pre-requisite for progression is not entirely wrong, but it also means that the PM has told us nothing earth-shattering that we do not already know, or that we are already experiencing. If the PM has instead looked at opportunities as an expansionary one – what enlarges the pie or talent pool rather than what a specific pool can be allocated to do – then his focus would be less on progression pathways, but talent identification and creation.
The public service, unfortunately, is not about talent creation, but talent retention with the view of pushing talent up that progression path. How many in the service would have seen departments created because there is a genuine passion within the current talent pool to take up new challenges? More often than not, new roles are created because of external need, and talent is picked from what is available to fill those roles.
Moreover, from those selected, how many got it through internal progression? Which brings me to PM’s second condition.
Fear of innovation
“Secondly, and just as importantly, we need a cultural change because fundamentally, this is about our values, about how we value people, and Singapore must always be a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do, where you are respected for your contributions and your character and anyone can improve his life if he works hard and everyone can hope for a better future.”
A management consultant once said that the best leader is the one who starts planning to leave the job from the first day on the job.
Sounds like a serial job-hopper? Not so. True leaders know that they add value to the organisation when they surpass what they are expected to do. They then find a need to move up, or move out. But they also cannot simply vacate their post, and need to find someone to fill their shoes, and then some.
This is succession planning, and this is where our public service, generally speaking, failed more than it should.
I have heard too many stories, and saw more than a few examples myself, where bosses do not have the audacity to move out of their comfort zone, to challenge what is passed down as the “standard operating procedure”, “precedence” and “protocol”, where those who can and dare to take the next evolutionary step forward can be identified and made to succeed, or fail and allowed to learn.
The safety of the tried and tested lulls them into doing more of the same. But if everyone is doing the same, how do you tell who has the ability to break out and make a difference? What then becomes the criteria for promotion – those who deliver results, or those who test the boundaries?
Sadly, this mindset permeates into what their subordinates do. They follow the same rules and procedures, such that when a new opportunity or even a brand new role presents itself, they revert to the tried and tested.
Indeed, this preference for stasis has often led to bosses filling new roles, or newly vacated ones, with external sources. Internal performance based on the tried and tested are left where they are, because they are “reliable” and are effectively “performance cash cows”.
This mentality goes back to the first point about scarcity of opportunities. The need to maintain “standards” is fuelled by the need to maintain the status quo, or risk losing what they currently have. Bosses cannot look forward to rising up the ranks, either because the scholars are in the next rotation, or their bosses are also just as interested in maintaining the status quo.
The result is mental and employment stagnation, underemployment, unnecessary exploitation and token promotions. Those who cannot accept the status quo eventually leave. Talent is lost, but replacements are found to fill the exact same role, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
In essence, if we want to talk about a “culture shift” in how public officers are promoted, we need to also look at how they are hired, retained and invested in. There is no point looking at means and ways to promote those “deserving” regardless of their qualifications, when it might only be little more than an exercise in tokenism.
Instead, real cultural change comes from starting to look at it from how the public service can appreciate innovation, breaking the template, the creation of something new. The opportunities will arise naturally from there, and the people willing to take the risk to fill those roles will also rise to the occasion.
In other words, there is no need for the PM to talk about progression and the “culture shift” needed to make that happen. What he really needs to talk about is matching talent with innovation.
The author spent 12 years in the public service, 10 of those with the Singapore government.
Top image - screen capture from Channel NewsAsia online
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