Catalysing Change in the Public Service

Amidst heightened security challenges, the introduction of new disruptive technologies and ever tighter constraints on manpower and resources, what must the Public Service do to fulfil its mission? Speaking to over 1,500 public officers on 1 August at the Public Service Conference 2016, Mr Peter Ong, Head, Civil Service, called for a renewed focus on innovation and collaboration. The following is an abridged version of Mr Ong’s address.
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Good morning, colleagues and friends. I am very happy to see so many of you here today for Public Service Conference 2016.

The theme for this year’s conference is the Future of our Public Service. It is a relevant theme, as we stand in SG51 and look ahead. I would like to take some time today to share my thoughts on how we have come together to re-imagine the Public Service of the future, and how we can work towards realising our collective aspirations.


Judging from the sharing by five of our colleagues, I must say that I am very inspired, and I have full confidence that we can navigate this journey into the future together. Some of them shared about their personal stories and anecdotes; others reached out across different agencies to transform enforcement; others applied their technical and professional capabilities to do data analytics. These are all very exciting, and if you ask me, they are not ordinary officers, they are extraordinary officers.

Looking Back at Public Service Transformation

We embarked on a major Public Service Transformation effort in 2012. There were pressing issues that we had to deal with. We had to work differently to:

  • Collaborate better across agencies to deal with multi-dimensional issues;
  • Design more citizen-centric policies and services; and
  • Build stronger trust with the citizens through deeper partnerships with the community.

As a Service, we committed to be One Trusted Public Service with Citizens at the Centre. We have achieved much since.

We undertook significant transformative projects – some, like the Municipal Services Office, communications efforts for the Pioneer Generation Package and the digital eCitizens Ideas! portal were featured in the video you just watched. Beyond these projects, what was more heartening to me was to see many agencies and officers embracing the effort and transforming the way they work: To think Whole-of-Government, to always think from the citizen’s perspective, and above all, to uphold trustworthiness.

Just think back five years and compare it to your work now – I am sure there’s a big difference in the way you operate. Thank you for responding to this call and rising up to the challenge. I appreciate the efforts of every single officer who has helped to make this possible.

Pressing On with Public Service Transformation

Because of what you did, we are in a better position to deepen our transformation movement in the Public Service. We face an operating environment that is ever changing and remains uncertain and volatile – almost tumultuous. A few years back, Brexit would have been unimaginable, yet it is happening. On the security front, terrorism is a clear and present danger. We have seen recent attacks in Paris, Tunisia, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Nice and most recently, Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. The threat is inching its way closer to home: Just last month, a grenade exploded in a Selangor nightclub, injuring eight people.

We are also seeing new disruptive technologies and business models. They bring both opportunities as well as challenges in terms of how we regulate and what jobs may be displaced. At the same time, resources are going to be tighter.

While this forward-looking stance is a luxury in many other countries, our transformation journey must continue for a large organisation like the Singapore Public Service where work straddles so many different domains.

PSfuture: Our Collective Aspirations

To do so, we asked ourselves: What would our future look like? How do we want to get there? Both the destination and the approach matter. As a nation, we have moved to shape Singapore’s future collectively through dialogue and partnership – first with Our Singapore Conversation, and then with the SGfuture initiative. In April this year, I announced the launch of a similar exercise within the Public Service – PSfuture. It was meant for all of us to come together, to share with one another our aspirations and challenges, and to co-create our desired future Public Service.


To date, we have reached out to more than 10,000 officers from over 70 Ministries and agencies via face-to-face conversations and online channels. At these dialogues, I heard voices of resilience, voices of passion, and the voices of sincerity and humility to make the Public Service worthy of Singapore. Let me share five aspirations you upheld:

One: We want to be a bold and innovative Public Service.

Two: We want to work as One Public Service and deliver better outcomes for citizens.

Three: We want to work in healthy and effective organisations.

Four: We want to connect and work with citizens in a way that builds their trust.

Last: We want to be a technology-enabled and productive Public Service.


These five aspirations were distilled from the rich conversations we have had collectively. They are laudable goals which we will pursue under the next phase of Public Sector Transformation.

Realising these goals will require all of us to work together and to work differently. Let me share how the leadership and the Service will support you in this journey. I will begin with Being a Bold and Innovative Public Service.

A Bold and Innovative Public Service

Many of you want a Public Service which is open-minded and continually questions existing assumptions and ways of doing things. We do this not for the sake of change, but to keep improving. It is where everyone, junior or senior, can be bold enough to offer robust, well-thought through and practical ideas to make a difference.

Working as One Public Service

Second, in working as One Public Service, officers said that we need everyone to adopt a Whole-of-Government mindset and pursue what is best for Singapore and not just for our specific agency. This is where every officer, team or agency collaborates and reaches out across organisational boundaries to achieve better outcomes for the Public Service and Singapore – even if it means a bit more effort, which you saw in the enforcement team sharing by our colleague from the Police.

Working as One Public Service was a recurrent theme across almost all dialogue sessions and is an issue that is very close to my heart. I personally hosted the PSfuture session on this theme.

A Trusted Public Service that Connects and Works with Citizens

Third, officers want a Public Service that balances between efficiently serving citizens while empowering and enabling citizens to self-help or co-create solutions.

However, challenges in connecting and working with citizens remain. Officers recognise that in today’s media-saturated environment, we need to work harder to gain the attention of citizens when communicating our ideas and engaging them on issues. Given the diverse and varied interests of Singaporeans, many officers had shared that better communication and engagement comes with deeper understanding of the profiles of different citizen segments, so that we can personalise the messages and information.

We will need to strengthen our capabilities in public engagement. The Public Service Division and Civil Service College are working to update the Public Engagement Competency model by identifying potential gaps in the current competency model, such as building relationships and forging consensus with citizens. New training resources will be developed by leveraging training partners. A training roadmap will also be planned by mapping the skills curriculum to the competency model for different levels of public engagement practitioners.

We are also building capabilities in putting out communications that is informed by data, and by expanding our digital outreach. By leveraging technology, we can engage audiences better by knowing their content preferences, and providing personalised communications on devices they can access easily. To upskill our officers to do all this, the Civil Service College is working to design training programmes for communications officers in areas such as digital marketing and analytics.

A Healthy and Effective Workplace

Fourth, officers spoke of how they wished to see a Public Service that values a diversity of talents, and where you can develop your potential to the fullest. They want a culture that is nurturing and where they can work alongside communities of passionate and committed officers.

Many officers shared about how they felt a strong sense of teamwork and camaraderie at their workplace, with understanding supervisors who recognised good work. Importantly, they shared that the work they did was aligned to their personal values and aspirations to make an impact in the lives of citizens.

A Technology-enabled and Productive Public Service

Fifth, officers also envisioned a public service that embraces technology to understand our citizens and deliver services better, while maintaining the human touch and empathy with citizens who can trust us with their personal data. In such a public service, our officers work in digitally immersive and data-rich environments. We are also able to find ingenious solutions around constraints to be more productive.


Technology is a key enabler to delivering value. Going digital for service delivery will also allow us to improve the way we work and enhances our productivity. Instead of time-consuming manual processes, digital infrastructure allows us focus on higher value outcomes, offers convenience, ease-of-use and timeliness in delivering services. By digitising our processes and databases, we will be able to have a more holistic picture of citizens’ needs, and data analytics will allow us to anticipate their needs better. To this end, the Infocomm Development Authority is currently working on a “Citizen 360” concept whereby we cluster our online service offerings around key moments of a citizen’s life, such as getting married or enjoying one’s silver years, rather than have them experience these offerings as disparate transactions.

Co-creating the Future of the Public Service

When we started Public Service Transformation in 2012, the change process was not meant to be directive or centrally dictated. From the centre, we only identified the three desired outcomes and gave freedom for agencies to design ways and processes to achieve these outcomes. Riding on the spirit of PS21 while not requiring all its form and processes, we will continue to catalyse a change movement in the Service to stay ahead of our challenges and future-proof ourselves. You are the expert of your own domain – you know exactly what needs to be done to effect change. Hence, in this next phase of transformation, Ministries and agencies will have the flexibility to decide the path of transformation they wish to undertake, that makes most sense for your business outcomes and stakeholder groups. We will also adopt a more outcome-focused approach towards transformation and Ministries and agencies get to set their own goals and impact assessment measurements.


As a Public Service, we have been able to stay resilient in the face of waves of change. We have managed to maintain public trust in our institutions and to support the work we do. We must continue to earn that trust and support through successfully navigating the future challenges that we will face, and have the Singapore Public Service come out as a stronger organisation. Let us make full use of these two days to immerse ourselves in the activities, learn from your fellow colleagues, and be prepared to take that first step toward the Public Service of the Future that we all want to be.

I hope you have a fruitful Conference.

To see more photos from the conference, check out these albums on the PSD FB page12 and 3.
    Aug 5, 2016
    Peter Ong
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