By Howard Lee
Addressing Administrative Service officers at the Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam highlighted the need for the civil service to continue engaging the people, so as to retain trust in the government.
Among other points, he highlighted the need to include the public in coming up with solutions. “This has to be an increasingly important aspect of governance, because the problems and challenges are becoming increasingly complex and many of our citizens can and want to contribute to helping to tackle both municipal and national issues,” he was reported as saying.
This view is progressive by today’s standards, even if you might be sceptical about DPM’s intent. It speaks of co-creation and involvement, building a future together, a shared identity, a common goal. These are powerful images, and they all centre on trust.
However, what we to need to ask is whether citizens are able to contribute in this way. Realistically and generally speaking, the majority of citizens are aware of where their unhappiness stems from, but not all would be ready with solutions that can be implemented.
And therein lies the problem with citizen co-creation. In any given forum, in the spirit of participation, there would be many solutions proposed, but not all would be fully-informed ideas. Even if we take for granted that the public service is genuine in consulting the people, the end result would be that many of these proposed solutions would eventually become unimplementable, for lack of a proper study of the subject matter.
In that sense, it becomes easy for the public service to respond politely: “That is a good proposal, but…” In other words, the public service is still seen as the expert on the subject, and the views of citizens are by default deemed insignificant or unhelpful.
In this context, you would then realise that much of government engagement is more about reaching a consensus to a particular solution, rather than achieving a real ground-up resolution. Indeed, how many “consultation” exercises have we seen, or even participated in, where the aim is not to seek co-creation, but to basically inform the target audience about what will be implemented, or at best consult their views based on limited parameters of discussion?
That is not to say that citizens do not have good ideas, but given the long history of our indifference towards government policies – which for better or worse was built on much higher levels of trust – the citizens of today find themselves lacking in knowledge of the subject matter to be able to contribute meaningfully, even if it is a topic they feel passionately about.
The fact that we do not have a Freedom of Information Act that can grant free access of national information to citizens who have an interest to research in a subject compounds the problem.
Where, then, are the experts? The public service used to believe that they are the ones, but this is no longer the case. Those with the subject knowledge and are passionate in bringing about change have found their way into civil society – individuals and activist groups that are not afraid to engage openly and debate with the government on equal terms. It is unfortunate, as I have examined in my previous article, that the public service should view them with much scepticism and suspicion.
As such, if the public service wished to seek specific solutions to problems, their first stop must necessarily be with civil society.
If that be so, do we then say that all citizen consultation is useless? Not really. What the public service needs to understand, and hence be mindful of when it tries to conduct such consultation exercises, is that the more “general” the population consulted, the less solution-specific the consultation should be.
If we were to take a look at the results of the Singapore Conversation, it becomes apparent that the wide diversity of people the programme reached out to delivered these rather broad themes: Opportunities, Purpose, Assurance, Spirit and Trust. I will not elaborate too much on these themes, but you can read the OSC Reflections brochure while it is still available.
You might notice that, when it comes to translating these broad themes into specific ideas and solution, the ideas that can possible come up are vague, or at least as diverse as the number of people consulted. For instance, the theme of Assurance mentioned affordability in housing, healthcare and public transport; personal and family responsibility; and investing and planning for life’s uncertainties. That is a very broad swath of ideas, indeed.
Where do we begin to translate these views into working solutions? What is the role of the public service in such a situation? The temptation would be to “help” the people define the problem, which would eventually lead to a “logical” solution.
That would be the wrong way to do it. In fact, reaching out to a wide and diverse group of voices and be open to their inputs can help to identify pain points and define general policy directions. The public service needs to be aware of how citizen consultation can help, and tailor the consultation process towards that mode of thinking.
To do so, the first mindset the public service must leave at the door is the desire to tell participants, “Don’t just complain, come up with solutions as well”. We are way past that stage as a nation. Accept that there would be citizens who are unhappy, but who are also unable to propose ideas that can help achieve a solution. These view are not invalid, but very real.
Also, what to consult on? The truth is, if planned well and with enough early-warning feelers on the ground, there is no subject the public service deals with that cannot by consulted on. The more important question to ask is, how effective do you want the policy to be?
And the final leg that would bolster trust is to complete the feedback loop. I have written about this previously at the closing of the Singapore Conversation, and there is nothing more important than to let citizens know that their views have not been taken for granted.
A lot of this also sounds very much like common sense, but you might have heard more than one public officer say “that is ideal, but we do not have time for this” when it comes to public consultation. Our public service has short-changed itself of a chance to connect better with citizens. The issue is not time, but mindset and effort. Such must be the understanding of not only those in the rank and file, but all the way to the top of the organisation. Anything else can only lead to the “steam-rolling accusation” that does very little to build trust.
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A lot is at stake for the Singapore public service today. Despite high profile corruption cases, I tend to believe Singaporeans generally trust that our public service is doing a decent job. Whether what they are doing is in the best interest of the people, or merely feeding a machine that just cannot stop moving, is another matter all together, and something worth reflecting on.
A proper consultation process would put all this into perspective, and is something the public service needs to do to build upon, or perhaps regain, the trust that the people have placed in them. To do so, it has to consult widely and openly with political parties, civil society and citizens, and be very clear how to get the best out of the consultation with each.
Being open and fair with the people carries risks, the first being the acknowledgement that it is no longer the expert on issues, no longer in control. But that is already a reality, and the dividends of doing it right would far outstrip the risks.