Catalysts of change in the public service

Singapore’s famous landmark, the Merlion with skyscrapers in the background. One of the keys to the country’s success is its public service. Photo by: WanderingTripod / CC BY-NC-ND

As we embrace the new year, Singapore has much to celebrate. In 2015, the city-state will mark its 50th year of independence — a milestone that merits deeper reflection on Singapore’s remarkable transformation from new nation with few industries, no agriculture and a small port to an economic powerhouse. Any conversation about Singapore would remain incomplete without acknowledging one of the key contributors to the country’s success: the Singapore Public Service.

What are the policy decisions that helped Singapore build effective public service institutions? How has Singapore developed and strengthened public service capacity to deliver and cope with changing times? What are the incentives that drive public officials to deliver results? What are the enablers of public service excellence in Singapore? Three key strands weave through the country’s public service tapestry: first, strong intrinsic motivation of public officials; second, strategic foresight and the capacity for long-term planning; and third, the effective alignment of political and administrative leadership.

Against this backdrop, it is only fitting that the U.N Development Program’s Global Center for Public Service Excellence is located in Singapore. Set up in December 2012, the UNDP GCPSE is a collaborative effort between the Singapore government and UNDP. Our role is to help UNDP and stakeholders in the development world to understand the nexus between governance and growth. This relationship is a defining signpost in Singapore’s journey since its independence. Therefore, the center has set out to learn from Singapore’s experience, identify factors that drive public service excellence and build knowledge that could be adapted to different country contexts.

The center has two objectives. First, it aims to promote evidence by gathering and building knowledge on what works. Second, to act as a convening hub to bring together thought leaders, thinker-practitioners, government officials, policymakers and development stakeholders to exchange ideas and nurture new thinking on ways to improve public service. We identified four catalysts of change in the public service and this forms the road map for the center’s work:

1. Motivation.

Public service ethos and the intrinsic motivation of public officials play a significant role in the quality of public service outputs. It is critical to explore how emotions, attitudes and ambitions intersect to influence performance of public officials. When public officials are highly motivated and nurture a sense of empathy with the beneficiaries they serve, their approaches are more innovative, inclusive and sustainable.

2. Leadership.

Cooperation between political and administrative leadership is a prerequisite for the fulfillment of sustainable development goals. Singapore’s example points to a smooth alignment between the political and administrative spheres of management; this, however, is not the case for many developing countries. Poor coordination, conflicting interests and a worrying trust deficit often lead to disastrous consequences, inevitably leading to inefficient provision of services and failed partnerships.

3. Foresight.

Responding to the complex and increasingly changing nature of today’s development landscape requires strategic foresight and long-term planning. Singapore’s economic growth and social progress stand as a testament to strengths and benefits of foresight. The ability to identify and analyze challenges and opportunities that lie ahead is of paramount importance for public service resilience in developing countries and its ability to be responsive and adaptive to change.

4. Innovation.

Public officials need to be empowered to think and act differently; by looking at complexity theory, design thinking and social innovation, public officials will stand to benefit from a new culture and mindset that celebrates experimentation, creativity and collaboration. Flexibility and the willingness to think out of the box are becoming progressively crucial for the new generation of public service.

The center seeks to challenge existing thinking in these areas and highlight the importance of placing public service at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda. The Singapore story shows us that an effective public service is the bedrock for achieving sustainable development goals. This brings us to the question: How do we create effective public service institutions?

There are no easy answers.

The center is contributing to this dialogue as it takes on the role of co-Secretariat with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of the Effective Institutions Platform, a partnership which emerged from the Busan high-level meeting and which is contributing to the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation’s high-level meeting through voluntary initiatives such as the learning alliances on public sector reform.

Through this partnership, we hope to create space for EIP members and the center’s stakeholders to share knowledge, evidence and foster mutual learning around public service reforms. The establishment of Learning Alliances will help strengthen peer learning on topics agreed at the “Public Service Excellence & the Post-2015 Development Agenda” workshop in November 2014. EIP Learning Alliances are designed as collaborative multistakeholder groupings of institutions and organizations that share knowledge on public sector reform. Learning Alliances enable mutual learning in safe spaces and experimentation with problem-driven approaches to public sector reform.

In our quest to understand successes and failures of public service reforms, we must remember that change and progress in development can only be sustained with ownership and participation at all levels. As Singapore’s experience teaches us, it is imperative to get right the motivation, leadership, foresight and innovation in the conception, reform and delivery of public services. Once this is achieved, the world we want by 2030 becomes a realistic future.

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About the author

  • Max Everest-Phillips

    Max Everest-Phillips has been Director of the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence (GCPSE) since July 2013. He is an expert in governance, political economy and public administration.