From The Heart: Working With The Community, For The Community

Paired up with external organisations, teams of public officers get to work with and for the community differently – by starting from their hearts.
One More Time With Feeling
In a rare scene, the gateball court at the foot of Block 15 Toa Payoh Lorong 7 was finally seeing some life. Flower-planting, music and massages were the activities of the day for residents enjoying a pop-up party there.

For the longest time, the residents at the block of rental flats, mostly senior citizens, had left the court unused. Not only were they unfamiliar with gateball, being under the hot sun was not their idea of fun. But there were deeper issues too.

A team of new public officers, in a six-month long project in 2014, discovered that the residents felt isolated and did not trust or know their neighbours well.

This project is part of the fifth edition of Foundation Course Cares (FCC), which follows the Civil Service College (CSC)’s Foundation Course, a nine-week programme for new public officers (see sidebox).

As part of the FCC module, the participants form teams and go on three-day attachments with various organisations that have partnered with the CSC, such as social enterprises and voluntary welfare organisations. After learning about these organisations’ work and discussing potential collaborations with them, the teams refine their project scope and finalise the details with the organisation they will pair with for the coming six months.

On the trail

In the case of the unused gateball court, a team of five public officers worked with social enterprise The Thought Collective to go on trails in the community. At Toa Payoh’s Block 15, they spoke to residents, found posters about elderly abuse on walls, and saw bills, letters for fines and gambling tickets littered on the ground.

Walking around was one way The Thought Collective guided the team to do things differently, by drawing out their feelings to inspire ideas.

“They didn’t want us to overthink things,” says Mr Jonathan Lin, Assistant Director (Housing/Market) at the Ministry of National Development. “They wanted the ideas to come … from our heart, rather than just the logical ‘civil servant way’ of problem-solving.”

To foster interaction and trust among the Block 15 residents, his team organised the pop-up event with help from The Thought Collective’s contacts. Teammate Matthew Lee, Associate (Data & eGov strategy) at the Ministry of Finance, says: “They really helped to open doors and open our minds to seeking volunteers or help from the community.”

There are now plans to convert the grassy court into a garden. Residents can come together to tend to the flowers they have planted, and let their friendships grow too.

Kampong spirit

Over at Yishun, another five-member team’s project with the Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) took an unconventional turn.

Instead of resolving a community issue, they spent time exploring how GUI’s culture of being gracious, green, giving, grounded and grateful can be useful for the Public Service.

This turn inwards came about with the help of their project mentor, Ms Melissa Khoo, Director, Institute of Public Service Leadership, CSC. “She helped us turn the spotlight … on what the Public Service itself can do better to improve its own culture and sense of community,” says Ms Claudia Chang, a policy officer at the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Their team conducted 15 interviews with the GUI core team about their fundamentals. The team translated their findings into practices the Public Service can adapt for itself, and shared them at the end of the project with their coursemates.

They also drew from their experience at GUI’s weekly Balik Kampung programme, where volunteers take part in kampong activities such as gardening, crafting and preparing food, and get to know one another in the GUI community. These simple activities foster trust and connection, creating a shared identity and purpose among the volunteers.

The team suggested that the Public Service could learn from GUI to have flat leadership networks or teams without fixed roles, go beyond transactional relationships at work, and remain grounded and reflective.

For example, GUI uses a “Feel-Do-Think” approach, with group discussions for reflections after activities. Policymaking, in contrast, tends to start with analysis before implementation.

Having “analytics for empathy” to supplement policymaking could help, the team suggested. Ms Chang used an analogy she understood better after her stint with GUI: “Hardware” (infrastructure) and “software” (programmes and policies) are readily provided, but a crucial component, “heartware” (connections and empathy), is often lacking.

“The ‘heartware’ is something we don’t often think about very much in policy… The answer from a policy officer is ‘hardware and software will lead to it’, which is not necessarily true,” she says.

A rigorous project

Both teams had to overcome their assumptions and usual methods of problem-solving.

GUI team member, MOE policy officer Danielle Zheng says that as public officers, “we need this ‘problem statement’ in order to feel like we’re doing something.

“But this problem-seeking approach is not the best way to make friends. It’s like, ‘Hi, I want to get to know you, what’s your problem?’”

The team struggled with the need to “pin down” and have “absolute clarity” of GUI’s structure, future plans, and a problem to solve at first, but quickly realised that was not the way to go.

The FCC is also designed so that the public officers do their project while carrying out their day-to-day work.

“I think [that] is to bring home to us how difficult it is to juggle many different things at the same time,” says Ms Chang. “It is a very good reminder that there are some things at work, or in fact, in life that are not urgent but are important. The GUI project was one of those things that were important.”

The CSC Foundation Course is a full-time programme to introduce new officers in the general phase of the Public Service Leadership Programme to the values, knowledge and skills they need to be effective leaders in the Public Service. As part of the course, public officers are exposed to opportunities to work with community partners, connect with citizens and build competencies in areas such as leadership and team dynamics.

    May 1, 2015
    Janice Tan
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