SINGAPORE – The public service will increasingly look to recruit talent from the private and people sectors, and send more officers on external attachments, as part of efforts to become more agile and diverse.
These are areas which the public service needs to “double down or accelerate” work done during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Minister-in-charge of the Public Service Chan Chun Sing in an interview.
The end goal is to have “greater porosity” between the public sector and the outside world, he added. “It’s not a binary thing, where you are either in or out of the public service,” Mr Chan said.
Mr Chan, who is also Trade and Industry Minister, made these points in an interview last Thursday on what the public service has learnt from the Covid-19 crisis and its key priorities in the months to come.
At present, the public sector is grappling with three forces, Mr Chan said.
One, the level of uncertainty in geopolitics, economics and society has increased with the onset of the pandemic.
Two, external competition has also intensified, meaning that Singapore has to re-examine its relevance to the world.
Three, the population is becoming more diverse not just in the traditional categories of race or religion, but also in terms of aspirations and perspectives.
In response, the public service has to shore up resilience by staying agile, anticipate opportunities to keep ahead of the competition, and mobilise diversity when developing solutions, Mr Chan said.
He gave the example of how, in the early months of the pandemic, government agencies had to be quick on their feet to adapt to changing circumstances and keep things going, even as social distancing measures were tightened.
The Manpower Ministry and Enterprise Singapore had to reorganise themselves to answer thousands of phone calls from businesses who had questions on what they could and could not do under the new rules, Mr Chan said.
“You never know what the next crisis might be, but this agility to reconfigure for resilience of the system is critical,” he added.
As the country geared up for a new normal, it also had to adopt a “start-up mindset” and look at how to seize opportunities before others did.
“We need to constantly think of new ideas to entrench our relevance, to not be bypassed,” he said, adding that the crisis reaffirmed Singapore’s position of always trying to think at least two steps ahead.
On the topic of diversity in the public service, Mr Chan noted that there is a range of talents and skill sets in society. “The question is how do we bring them together into teams to work?”
He gave the example of how he encouraged the exchange of people between the public sector and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), where he was secretary-general from 2015 to 2018.
NTUC told him the candidate it had received was not skilled enough at operations and mobilisation, while the government agency felt its newest officer was not adept at policy making.
“I said: ‘Actually, I think that’s the point’,” Mr Chan said. Any new hire from outside the public service must adapt to a new culture, he added.
“But the very fact that we want to bring in a new person is because we want some of the culture in the existing system to evolve a bit.”
Mr Chan was also asked for his thoughts on the perception that scholarship holders in the public service tend to rise further and faster than regular employees and mid-career hires.
“I think there’s more than a fair chance that people are promoted based on their performance,” he added. “But, of course, whether we invested in a person before or not, we all hope that they succeed.”
He added that not all scholarship holders rise to the top, and that there are “great expectations” of those who have been given great opportunities.
“I’m quite confident that the public service has a certain diversity of backgrounds and there’s a continuous meritocracy,” Mr Chan said. “And that’s one of the reasons we constantly evolve our selection and development system.”
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