Looking Ahead: An Interview With The Head Of Civil Service

In this wide-ranging interview, Mr Peter Ong sets forth his concerns for the Public Service, and the strengths that it needs to develop, in order to continue serving the public well.

Looking Ahead: An Interview With The Head Of Civil Service

What gets the Head of Civil Service (HCS) all fired up? Seeing citizens take an interest in public service and chipping in to deliver public services.

To Mr Peter Ong, it’s a positive sign for the country’s future. Ordinary citizens, he noted, had volunteered to work alongside public officers to explain the Pioneer Generation Package to seniors, going door-to-door to share about its benefits. They would even spend up to “30 minutes to an hour at each household, holding the hands of our pioneers, explaining to them oftentimes not in English but in dialect,” he enthused.

Such collaboration is heartening for Mr Ong, especially as one of his chief priorities is for the Public Service to ensure that passionate Singaporeans can come together to co-create solutions and outcomes for the common good.

A more engaged citizenry also reflects Singapore’s maturing as a society, whose now better-educated population want a bigger role in policymaking, and the design and delivery of public services, he added.

That is why Mr Ong is emphatic about the Public Service’s need to respond to and tap this deeper public interest and participation. This includes improving public outreach and engagement, such that public officers will be able to convey policy details effectively, and explain how they matter to citizens.

In his five years as HCS, Mr Ong has stressed the need to maintain high levels of trust in the Public Service. In part, this trust is built by competent officers – with the right skills and capabilities – who keep Singapore running well with good policies.

Using data well

To do this, officers need to have a “good feel of what’s happening” on the ground. One way is to tap data analytics, he said.

As the world gets more complex and data-rich, being able to “translate data into insights” and turn those insights into policies will be much-needed skills, he explained. Hence, data scientists are coveted in the Service.

In the last few years, data has been increasingly used to deliver better services in more coordinated ways. Mr Ong pointed out that the new Municipal Services Office (MSO) employs a sophisticated switchboard back-end that channels all feedback on basic city services to the “rightful owner” out of 10 agencies.

The IT system “has a degree of intelligence” that enables it to monitor how agencies process feedback. It also identifies feedback or complaints that do not fall neatly under one agency’s purview. MSO officers can then intervene and identify the agency responsible, said Mr Ong.

Each time a policy is implemented by one agency, there are spillover effects or implications for other policies.

And with new IT systems to come, work processes will be streamlined and sharing data across agencies will be possible, he added. “This will herald many new ways in which we can serve citizens better and imply a significant change in how we do our work.”

Getting in sync

There are now more complex issues falling into grey areas, which individual agencies have trouble resolving alone. Furthermore, “each time a policy is implemented by one agency, there are spillover effects or implications for other policies”.

Hence the latest initiative for improving cooperation across government: the Strategy Group, which falls directly under Mr Ong’s supervision.

The Group’s key focus areas are: anchor the Government’s forward planning in the medium-to-long term range; identify cross-cutting issues, especially those that have no clear ownership; coordinate policy action and resource usage across Ministries; and seed new capabilities for the whole Service.

To carry out these roles, the Strategy Group must have a deep understanding of what is happening in the social, economic, technological and security arenas, and how these all come together, he said.

A more engaged citizenry also reflects Singapore’s maturing as a society, whose now better-educated population want a bigger role in policymaking.

While the new unit’s futures work is crucial for Singapore to think and plan a few steps ahead, Mr Ong also hopes that having a bigger picture of which issues will become more or less critical would enable public officers to better prioritise their objectives.

“Hopefully, that will unleash new energies into our agencies, and officers can go into areas where there is greater need.”

Take time to talk

Public officers having plenty on their plate is something Mr Ong empathises with. Besides heading the Public Service, he is Permanent Secretary of Finance and Special Duties, and sits on many committees and boards.

To unwind, he takes weekend walks in the Botanic Gardens and cycles along the park connectors. It’s during those cherished quiet moments that he can “completely shut out” work and reflect on the week gone by.

“Typically I always come away with a fresh perspective that I might not have … when in the throes of very intense policy discussions.”

More importantly, he advises public officers who feel overwhelmed by their workload to speak to their supervisors. An ongoing conversation, not just once or twice a year, is useful for both sides to get a “clear sense of [the] issues that are critical and require focus, attention, energies and resources”.

As opportunities for supervisors to give honest feedback, and for officers to identify the areas where they can develop their capabilities or pursue future roles, these discussions are an important process for public officers to manage their careers, he said.

Such measures will help to retain and attract good people “who are motivated by a sense of mission to serve Singapore”, even amid a tight labour market.

After all, more than technologies and systems, it will be the people – capable public officers, purposeful and willing to learn – who will ultimately bring his vision of having a united and trusted Public Service to fruition.

    Sep 1, 2015
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Wesley Loh
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