All Aboard the Public Engagement Train

Public officers are increasingly engaging the public in the work they do. The journey together isn’t always a smooth one, but the destination can be rewarding. Ryandall Lim reports that the key is to connect and build relationships.

When upset residents from Maplewoods Condominium sent a petition to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against having a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) worksite launch shaft outside their condominium entrance without prior consultation, officers from the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) Project Communications knew they were in for a tough time.

After several dialogues – including one where they were “ousted”, subjected to near interrogation and nasty name calling from confrontational residents – a compromise was reached and the shaft remained, but traffic and pedestrian paths were adjusted. The heated exchange which began in May 2011 took more than six months to simmer down.

Why engage the public, if processes can become laborious? The answer is simple: the public is now more sophisticated, vocal and expectant, and a whole lot less tolerant.

It’s not overnight that citizens have become more demanding, but it has certainly been clearer in recent years. The Prime Minister himself has said the government has to be more interactive and inclusive with “more initiative from the ground-up and fewer top-down directions”. Public engagement has become a necessity.

But first, it must be understood that not everything can involve the public. “Greater public engagement is not a free-for-all,” said Land Transport Authority CEO Chew Hock Yong at the 2011 Public Service Staff Conference. “We have to be very careful about which issues the government is best-placed to take all views into account and then decide and explain to the people and implement.” (Read Challenge March/April 2010 for more on co-creation) After identifying issues, the key is to connect.

“If you show that you are out there, you are prepared to listen, and prepared to work with them on a solution... people relate to you at a relationship and emotional level...” Hence, added Mr Chew, it is ultimately about managing relationships.

Making the connection

Mr Chew’s sentiments are lived out at LTA. Since inception in 1995, LTA has engaged the public on major infrastructure projects like constructing expressways and MRT lines. Recently, it established more visible public engagement initiatives.

In 2008, LTA launched its Community Partnership Network, deploying staff to work closely with advisers and grassroots organisations as well as attend Citizens’ Consultative Committee meetings to manage day-to-day issues. Project Communications addresses new LTA projects. These efforts facilitate feedback between LTA, the grassroots and the public, resulting in much quicker and more effective resolution of issues. However, they are obviously more labour and resource-intensive, as officers have to undergo new training to engage effectively.

“As with anything, change involves adaptation as we shift in focus to the people-centric aspect of our system,” says Mr Chandrasekar, LTA’s Traffic and Community Partnership Director.

Another initiative, FOLTA or “Friends of LTA”, invites people with keen interest in land transport matters to feedback sessions pegged to new station walk-throughs, as well as site and tunnel visits. This two-way exchange can generate more ideas and enhance mutual understanding.

But with the many feedback mechanisms available – hotlines, surveys, interviews, focus groups, town-hall meetings – agencies need to determine which method to employ.

In her article Developing Our Approach to Public Engagement, Civil Service College Senior Researcher Lena Leong writes in Ethos magazine that in a public engagement exercise, it is vital to “determine who, when and what to consult, as well as how to include an appropriate plurality of voices.”

Furthermore, making the final collective contribution visible is just as important “to dispel misperception that decisions were made prior to consultation” and show that the government actually listens. When collected data is not revealed, the exercise fails to reach closure and the public may not feel consulted.

Reaching out to commuters: From left: Michael Yap (Friends of LTA), Bernard Lim Hock Siew (Community Partnership), Ho Kok Khun (Project Communications), Rena Teo and Muhammad Ismail (Community Partnership).

Reaching a compromise

Agencies might sometimes also encounter stakeholder groups whose varied agendas skew decisions, making conclusions hard to achieve. To help reframe issues, identifying and including relevant stakeholders in discussions can let new dynamics arise, allowing for clarification of issues as groups understand others’ constraints.

Explains LTA’s Mr Chew: “sometimes, one view can be countered by another that moves in the different direction. People will appreciate that you have to consider different views to an issue.”

Agencies should not be too fixated with their agendas and go through the motions of open dialogue. No matter how tempting it might seem to steer a discussion towards a pre-formulated outcome, the challenge is to keep an open mind. Instead, tap pluralistic views and ideas generated, which may eventually allow for co-creating a vision.

Seizing the opportunity

When it was announced in May 2010 that the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) railway system from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands would cease operations and the former Malaysian railway lands would revert to the Singapore Government, significant public interest was piqued. The Nature Society (Singapore) sent in a proposal for the preservation of a 26-kilometre continuous “green corridor”. Netizens began to garner widespread support by setting up websites such as The Green Corridor ( and writing blogs dedicated to the cause. The We Support the Green Corridor in Singapore Facebook page currently has nearly 7,500 ‘likes’.

Recognising the unique opportunity to involve the public, the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) embarked on The Rail Corridor Project, to crowd-source for ideas on the lands’ development. When the last trains pulled out of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the entire railway line was opened to the public for two weeks, to allow them to experience the tracks and surrounding nature.

MND and URA began on a “clean slate” without any preconceived detailed plan in mind as a proactive response to the widespread interest. It set up the Rail Corridor Consultation Group (RCCG) – comprising NGOs, cyclists and nature bloggers – to contribute ideas. Minister of State (National Development) Tan Chuan-Jin chairs the group, which meets regularly for updates and discussions. Their role as an advisory group, he says, will be key at different stages of the engagement process.

The Friends of the Rail Corridor, one of the NGOs in the Consultation Group organised the Re-imagining the Rail Corridor exhibition, which showcased works from architectural and landscape students and design professionals, on what the future rail corridor could look like. In November 2011, URA launched Journey of Possibilities, an ideas competition inviting the public to share creative visions and ideas for the future use of the Rail Corridor in response to five key challenges and issues that would need to be addressed in designing the Rail Corridor. Based on these contributions, URA will involve planners and architects to assist in developing its Rail Corridor draft master plan.

The Rail Corridor Project ranks among MND’s and URA’s most extensive public engagement exercises to-date, leading the government’s call to be more inclusive.

“We are perhaps breaking new ground because we are consulting the public for ideas at an extremely early stage, without even a draft plan to serve as a point of reference,” reveals URA’s Director, Physical Planning (Central West) Tan See Nin, The Rail Corridor Project’s team leader.

Public engagement inevitably raises expectations that the government will be more transparent in thinking and will be prepared to listen and accept alternative views.
Public officers must therefore learn to handle differences of opinion and be prepared to explain perspectives as best as we can.”
Setting a track record: The Rail Corridor Project ranks among MND and URA’s most extensive public engagement exercises. (Clockwise from top left): Tan See Nin (URA), Eliza Choo (URA), Lee Chung Wei (MND), Claire Chan (URA) and Glodia Choi (URA).

Sustaining the relationship

Public engagement, on any level, empowers the citizenry, giving them a sense of ownership over policies. It enhances accessibility to government agencies and adds an emotional aspect to policy-making. However, it must be sincerely administered.

In an article from GovCamp Singapore 2011, a conference on improving public engagement using technology, participants felt this was especially true in cyberspace where maintaining an “honest, open and unfiltered engagement” was paramount.

The engagement process may be intricate but when done correctly, not only increases the government’s transparency and accountability, but builds trust among the people and broadens base support, allowing room for public empathy should outcomes fail or require change.

But to reach these goals, some sacrifices have to be made.

“Engagement efforts consume government resources and, in the short term, can appear less efficient than decisionmaking by fiat,” writes Ms Leong, in her article.

Moreover, co-created outcomes may prove inconsistent with service standards, and tedious policy deliberations could hinder the government’s ability to manage and plan decisively in the long term.

Is the public sector ready and willing to embrace these changes as their operating environments become more dynamic?

Ms Leong believes there has to be a change in mindset: “Engagement is not a one-off event. Its quality ultimately depends on the quality of relationship and trust stemming from the agency’s record at engagement and delivery, as well as day-to-day interactions with public officers, leaders, and fellow citizens.”

“Full management support and having a clear understanding of the desired outcomes from such an exercise are therefore critical factors for public engagement to be sustained and done well,” says URA’s Mr Tan.

Only then can meaningful relationships with the public work.

This is the first of a two-part series on Public Engagement.

    Jan 5, 2012
    John Heng
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