Civil Service head Peter Ong says policy makers must be close to the ground

SINGAPORE - The Head of the Civil Service wants elite members of the service to be close to the ground so they will not only craft but also execute policies well.

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Here is the full speech delivered by Mr Peter Ong:

An eventful 2013

2013 was an eventful year for Singapore and the Public Service alike. It was a Year of Connection, as we heard our people's aspirations through Our Singapore Conversation. It was also a year where PM articulated key policy shifts in his National Day Rally speech that will enable u s to move forward together, as a nation.

We also had episodes where we had to rally together as one government to tackle some important long term issues in the Population White Paper, and deal with the hacking of government websites and the riot in Little India.

A Purposeful 2014 

We enter 2014 with fresh aspirations. We have just completed our annual Budget Debate and Committee of Supply where we made major announcements to honour our Pioneers and provide greater assurance for our healthcare needs. The proposed re-opening of Parliament in May will further flesh out the policy agenda for the rest of this term of government. Managing implementation in a complex world

In parallel with the roll-out of our key policy initiatives, it is timely to remind ourselves of the need to focus on the smooth implementation and execution of these policies. There are several reasons why we ne ed to focus on this critical part of the policy cycle.

First, our operating environment is evolving at a more rapid pace than before. There is greater diversity amidst rising aspirations of our citizens, greater plurality of voices on issues and greater uncertainty of policy impact.

Second, our policies have become more complex; we face a constant surge in transactions and feedback volumes; and our implementation timelines have become shorter.

To overcome these challenges, we must devote more attention, time and resources to ensure that our carefully crafted policies will deliver the intended outcomes for our citizens when implemented.

Policy IS Implementation

Excellent policy execution requires our AOs to be well versed in a full range of skills. It requires sense-making to identify needs. It is also about thinking through implementation details, including how the policy is to be explained and communicated, and whether the policy is easily understood and citizens can benefit from it. Smooth implementation requires high awareness of the intricacies of processes to be rolled out, right down to the proverbial last mile.

When I was once a young Admin Officer, my boss es often told me that policy is implementation.

The best policy is only as good as its execution, otherwise it remains only as good ideas on paper.

There should also not be any artificial divide between policy formulation and policy implementation.

The officers who formulate the policy should own its entire chain and be accountable for how the policy is translated into outcomes that eventually reach our citizens.

Let me highlight three elements that can improve our ability to convert policy formulation into successful execution. I Pay attention to details, with ears on the ground

The first is to pay attention to details while always keeping our ears close to the ground.

Given the complex ways in which our policies interact with citizens and the volatile external environment, how we deal with details and feedback can either facilitate a successful rollout of our policies, or stymie their progress.

This culture of mastery over details in our Service is well known. We have all heard stories of the late Mr Sim Kee Boon who used to walk the ground and even slept at Changi Airport before its opening, to ensure that everything is in place. Legend has it that even the cleanliness of the toilets never escaped his attention. This attention to details is perhaps what makes Changi Airport so loved by all who use it.

I was fortunate to have worked with colleagues who exemplified this spirit of mastery over policy implementation details. In my very first job, I was brought to walk around every MRT station along the North-South and East-West line before it was opened to understand if pedestrian and passenger connectivity to the stations had been ironed out. Every possible gap had to be looked into to ensure a seamless flow on Day 1.

A recent successful example of a policy requiring detailed execution is the Enhancement For Active Seniors (EASE) programme. A team of MND, HDB and MOH officers worked with occupational therapists to pilot the project in 500 HDB flats. They realised that grab bars were one useful item to minimise falls and that it was crucial that they be installed at the right height for the elderly. So HDB trained their contractors to ensure that installation is customised to the seniors living in the flat. They also identified other practical items which could be installed within a day to minimise inconvenience to the elderly. About 24,000 residents have signed up for the programme since its launch in 2012, demonstrating how attention to detail leads to practical benefits for our seniors.

We also need to keep our ears to the ground to understand Singaporeans' moods and sentiments and see the impact of our policies on their lives. Being closer to where actual public services are delivered will allow us to more credibly craft the right features into policies to benefit Singaporeans.

Structurally, we have introduced more operational postings to help our AOs build closer links with the ground. In the late 90s, we started posting 1 to 2 AOs to the Community Development Councils (CDCs) and increasingly, to operational frontline agencies, to sharpen implementation instincts. Even though the size of the Admin Service has not grown proportionately, I am happy to know that there are now some 27 AOs working in operational jobs. These officers are involved in varied jobs, from overseeing career centres, to increasing the number of buses on our roads through the bus service enhancement programme.

As AOs get rotated through different postings, we will work towards all AOs having at least one operational posting in the course of their careers.

Under the Community Attachment Programme (CAP) which runs for up to 6 months, we have quadrupled the number of AO CAP participants from 10 in the 1980s to 40 this year. By the end of 2014, we expect some 70 per cent of AOs to have participated in CAP in their first 15 years of service. An AO can expect to participate in variations of the CAP at least twice in his or her career.

PSD will continue to ensure that Admin Officers get exposed to implementing policies on the ground and having direct interactions with their stakeholders. These stints will prove useful in their roles in policy formulation.

Partner diverse players for superior outcomes

Second, we need to work with non-Government partners such as voluntary welfare organisations, corporatised entities like restructured hospitals and outsourced vendors who deliver services for a fee, to achieve superior policy outcomes.

This requires a different set of skills, for example, appreciating the different operating norms of VWOs whose members are typically volunteers serving with a passion for various causes. When we work with outs ourced providers, for example, through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), we need to structure the right alignment of interests and cover the scope comprehensively through a mutually beneficial PPP contract.

The aptitude to manage such relationships with such implementation partners has to be carefully honed. It comes from the experience of actually rolling up your sleeves to work alongside these partners and build relationships that can stand the test of time and renegotiations. Our Admin Officers will need to fully immerse themselves in such partnerships and develop these capabilities over time.

Partner Sectoral Leaders for better implementation

A third element to successful policy execution is the ability to tap on the wisdom of leaders with deep specialist skills within the public service.

Recognising the complex environment we operate in, we launched the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) last year. The PSLP seeks to develop a core of specialist and sectoral leaders who will have the requisite deep knowledge and capabilities in domains needed within the wider Public Service.

The strategic objective is to create a complementarity between Admin Officers and our PSLP colleagues to formulate superior policies and implement them well.

As Admin Officers, we have a unique role of working closely with the elected political leadership through regular postings across many Ministries. This affords us the valuable vantage point of seeing the big picture of the Government's agenda and to understand the broader strategic inter-relationships of different policies and how they enhance the inte rests of Singapore and Singaporeans. We therefore can better connect the dots, align perspectives and positions, and exercise whole-of-government leaders hip in the Public Service to allow us to work as one.

Complementing this are our colleagues in the PSLP. They have honed capabilities through deeper specialisations in their respective domains and are valuable partners in the policy process.

To ensure effective implementation, AOs need to work closely with the sectoral leaders who have deep, specialist capabilities; integrate their expertise; and present the best policy options to the political leadership.

Conclusion

We start from a strong base in our policy implementation. Many countries come to study us, not just for the substance of our policies but also for how we are able to implement them. This is one of our strengths which international surveys and reports have widely recognised. We are a public sector that can get things done. This can-do spirit must spur us on as we tackle new problems that confront us.

To sustain this capability, we need leadership at all levels. How we lead in this area will shape the effectiveness of the Administrative Service and of the Public Service as a whole. As leaders, we set the tone for our organisations and our colleagues. Going forward, we will have many opportunities to strengthen our focus in getting our policies executed right. These policies encompass the many schemes we have to support businesses in the ongoing economic restructuring, and the social measures aimed at uplifting social mobility and dealing with ageing challenges.

Our security personnel also have their hands full with many operational demands. We will also need to complete our current infrastructure projects like housing, MRT and sports facilities smoothly.

Guided by our core values - integrity, service and excellence - let us sustain our legacy of formulating policies well and deliver ing them effectively as we forge ahead as One Trusted Public Service with Citizens at the Center.