“Everything We Do Is Designing An Experience Of Some Kind”

Public officers of the future need to have radical new mindsets and navigate a range of roles, while being agile and curious enough to learn new skills and exercise self-care.
Aaron shares his view on the future of public service.

In a future that is “never normal”, public officers need to stay strong and agile to keep up with change.

Aaron, whose casual chats with friends include topics like “What would public officers of the future be like?”, said that officers need to have a “radical sense of user-centricity”.

He said: “We must understand that everything we do in public service involves designing an experience of some kind for users – even if you think you only write policy papers, reading the paper is an experience too.”

Citizens’ experiences include things as mundane as filling in forms, navigating government websites and queuing up to collect items.

Design that takes into account what users truly need, rather than what public officers think they need, will strengthen policies as well as the services and programmes put out by the Public Service.

Public officers must have a “futures orientation”, understanding that there are multiple possible future scenarios. This anticipatory mindset will help officers “prepare for many different contingencies” rather than prepare for only one that might turn out to be wrong.

When we come together, we're much stronger than we are by ourselves.

Being able to engage with various parties across society is also crucial. “Government alone is not going to have all the answers. Businesses and citizens by themselves will also not have all the answers. But when we come together, we're much stronger than we are by ourselves.”

On top of that, public officers must be able to optimise resources, such as the use of public money.

“We need public officers who can navigate that range of roles, and who are constantly taking care of themselves so that they get stronger and acquire the skills and expertise that they need.

“If we don't take care of ourselves as our most important assets, we won't be able to meet the very demanding set of burdens and roles that we are expected to play.”

(Find out how Aaron makes time to rejuvenate himself physically and mentally.)

The Digitalisation Challenge

A big part of public officers’ roles relates to digitalisation.

Aaron’s research PhD with the Blavatnik School of Government examined government digitalisation efforts in Singapore, New Zealand and Estonia.

He has found that efforts were more successful when the public officers who liaise with tech vendors delivering the solutions have sufficient knowledge of the technologies involved.

Video by: Eric Lin

There is a “critical” need for internal technological capabilities, he said. “Governments need their own coders, their own programmers and their own engineers, who can be intelligent consumers and interlocutors with IT firms and make sure that the projects proceed in the best possible way.”

He is not suggesting that agencies should only hire more tech staff, as that would lead to manpower bloating.

Rather, public officers have to “in-skill, not just out-source” and get training so they are more “literate consumers of technological trends and ideas”.

“One important part of this in-skilling is not just in formal skills, but also to just be curious about new things and new ideas that we may not have encountered before,” he says.

Some ways to do this is to read books on various topics that may seem unrelated to work, and talk to people from different fields.

For instance, Aaron has sought out venture capitalists who invest in technology firms and people who work in the disability space.

From the venture capitalist, Aaron was interested to know more about the types of firms and projects he would invest in, his thought processes and the kind of data and information he looks out for.

Chats with a friend who is an active advocate in the disability space has taught him more about what it is like to work with people with visual or hearing impairments. “It ended up being very useful for the MCI because we've been thinking a lot about how to do more accessible communications.”

For example, televised broadcasts of major speeches now have sign language interpretation. “That came about partly because we were curious enough to go and speak to people, and find out what exactly they needed.”

Aaron also talks to younger people who are more tech-savvy or familiar in areas that he is less aware of, a practice he calls reverse mentoring. “It’s probably the most fun way that I try and stay connected with new ideas.”

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    Sep 6, 2021
    Wong Sher Maine
    Norman Ng
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