More shake-ups likely in the civil service

FEW other goodies in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's ground-breaking National Day Rally speech on Sunday generated more SMS buzz among my civil service friends than the announcement of the five-day work week.

I know individuals who left their cushy civil service positions for the private sector - taking a pay cut in one instance - just to be able to spend an extra day with the family or on personal passions. The outflow may soon be reversed. Ironically, a businessman friend feels the pressure is now on the private sector to up the stakes in terms of pay or other benefits, in order to stay competitive for labour now that its key hiring edge is gone.

Of course, the move has been long anticipated by the public sector. For years, many government agencies had alternate Saturdays off, and got acquainted with rotating work schedules. Key government transactions have been moved online, alleviating staffing pressures at service counters. And at the executive levels at least, public officers have worked well beyond their 44 hours during the week. So no one's shirking.

But the rally speech also signalled a new willingness to set aside the public sector's most sacred cows - and it's not just about the work week or equal medical benefits.

Equally revolutionary was the relaxation of conditions attached to certain privileges. So age, educational qualifications and birth order are no longer criteria for baby bonuses, and licensing requirements for indoor talks have been lifted.

Opportune gimmicks, say the critics. But they represent a fundamental shift in the mindset of governance. Simply put, the long-held assumption that privileges will be abused by some in the public without the prerequisite caveats and checks appears to have been lifted. It's as if the job of the bureaucracy is now to let things happen as well as they can, rather than prevent things from going wrong.

A top-level bureaucrat once suggested wryly it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, when trying to get things done. Certainly, that has been the modus operandi of bold and ambitious individuals both within and outside the public service, though not necessarily of the rank and file or even middle-management levels.

The civil service has been on the cusp of major changes for some time. In 1995, the public sector committed itself to a more flexible and responsive stance with the Public Service for the 21st Century (PS21) movement - an initiative frequently overseen by then-DPM Lee.

The trend in recent years has been for ministries to devolve their operational duties to statutory boards and concentrate on strategic policymaking. Recent examples, including the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board and the Workforce Development Agency, already seem geared up for some of PM Lee's new initiatives.

It has been nine years since PS21, and the quiet internal shift in the public sector mindset from regulator and rule-maker to facilitator and mediator has had time to take root. Now is the moment to step fully up to the tasks ahead.

An articulate and emboldened public, encouraged to come forward with comments and views, will now have even less patience with the bureaucracy of the 'tried and tested'. It will not be enough for senior leaders to make assurances, if the implementers on the ground are not clued in to the new approach, or given the due autonomy to make swift decisions.

To quote management guru Robert Greenleaf, whose work on servant leadership is gaining currency in the public sector, the new civil service should see itself as helping those they serve 'become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants'.

The new breed of bureaucrats will also be expected to look out for threats and opportunities on the horizon, while keeping his hands off where he's not needed. In the near term, the spotlight is likely to fall on successful risk-takers and innovators as role models. Recruitment and reward structures will no doubt be tuned to match the desired profile.

One target for reform already signalled: the iron rice bowl. Alluding to the need for Singapore corporations to restructure in order to stay competitive, PM Lee has cautioned the public sector to follow suit. 'If the civil service is the only place where you have an iron rice bowl... we have a problem,' he warned.

Could this mean a shift to a private sector-style hire-and-fire approach to public sector management, to get the right people on board? Nothing now seems out of the question. While celebrating their five-day work week, civil servants might take the hint that further (and perhaps more wrenching) shake-ups are inevitable.