Insights on Public Policy

By Adriale Pang

On 21 February 2023, Advisory hosted Discover+: Public Policy, the 68th edition of the Discovery+ series. Speakers on the panel included moderator Mr. Wu Wei Neng, Mr. Huang Jianyun, Mr. Devadas Krishnadas, Ms. Rachel Teo and Ms. Zing Lim. The panelists shared more about the boundless career opportunities in the public sector, and how youths can best position themselves for such roles. Below are some key points shared during the session.

“Urgency”: No matter how complex we think we are becoming domestically, not a single thing about our external geopolitical reality has changed – success is survival for Singapore, we have no middle ground, no resting point. Thus, public service is about continuously trying to prevent complacency from setting in, and maintaining that sense of urgency for Singapore to succeed extraordinarily – just to survive.

“Scarcity”: Without scarcity, nobody would have to make any choices. We would have unlimited resources to do everything. But in reality, scarcity exists. This is where public policy comes in, to delicately balance potential trade-offs. Different stakeholders have different wants, and in order to make the best out of limited resources, those working for the government have to make policy decisions that are unable to please everyone.

“Blunt tool”: Public policies affect almost everyone. However, the public’s needs are heterogenous. Hence, “one-size-fits-all” policies are blunt tools because such policies will be unable to meet everyone’s needs. The government can permit exceptions and customisations in their policies. However, in instances where blunt policies are necessary, it is important to acknowledge their shortcomings.

“Public”: Public policy is “public” not only in the sense that it affects the masses, but also in the sense that the government requires the help of many other actors – civil society, interest groups, consultancies, think tanks, corporates, etc. The government cannot run every sector of society (e.g. infrastructure, social, economic, security) alone.

“The art of partnerships”: The government’s implicit contract with citizens no longer just exists in the economic realm. It is no longer just “I, the government, will provide you with a good job, a roof over your head, clean drinking water, and stability.” The question looming now is: how does the government influence, canvass and manage stakeholders, to ensure that society as a whole moves forward together?

“Daily life”: Although the day-to-day tasks of your job may not involve direct interaction with the intended stakeholders you wish to benefit, we are all Singapore citizens ultimately, and we all have been through the lived experiences of being an MOE student, living in an HDB flat, taking the MRT, being an NSman, etc. Public policy, at the end of the day, will always be relevant to our daily lives. As long as you are curious about what is going on around you and how Singapore works, you will be able to see the relevance of your work to the wider context of life in Singapore.

“A paradox of transparency and confidentiality”: The government needs to be transparent and accountable to the public, yet it cannot function without keeping some things private. In this respect, allowing citizens to vote for every decision made by the government would be far from ideal.

“Retreating wisely”: Policymakers like us used to think that public policy meant having a solution for every problem, but nowadays we have to ask this question instead: how might the government retreat wisely in order to create whitespace for other actors to assume ownership and agency over the issues? This question is absolutely unnerving for policymakers who demand control over everything, but in a VUCA world, the mindset that governments control everything has become outdated. It takes humility to acknowledge the limits of government policy.

It is difficult to capture the process in its entirety, but in broad strokes, here are some key elements:

  1. Identify the problem. Members of the public may write in, or issues may surface during internal scans. Define the problem well, because if you start with the wrong questions, you will definitely get the wrong answers.
  2. Analyse the problem. Gather intelligence (e.g. data), consult relevant parties outside of the government, and develop insights. Take stock of the current situation to analyse path dependency – how do current policies constrain future ones?
  3. Create and implement solutions. The Public Service proposes multiple possible options. Some decisions (e.g. at the operational level) do not have to be brought up to the political leadership, but ultimately elected politicians take on decisions which are more consequential, because they are the ones vested with the mandate of the people.

There are three competing interests in policymaking: national interest, popular interest, and individual interest. In the earlier days of Singapore’s independence, policymaking was “simpler” – national interest trumped everything else. Nowadays, public policy has become so much more complex, given that popular interest and individual interest have grown in relative importance.

Singapore is getting into sharper and sharper trade-offs. For example, if we consider which party to allocate a single plot of land to, sacrificing one party’s needs over the other’s is going to be more painful nowadays, since there are hardly any alternative plots available for the losing party, considering how Singapore has become so urbanised.

Undoubtedly, the Public Service works closely with the Ministers. However, this does not mean that the Public Service is always aligned with the political leadership, and a growing phenomenon is how the Public Service can come up with views at odds with the political leadership, which we debate rigorously for the good of the public.

With regard to how the Public Service has changed in recent years, harsh realities still currently exist, even as improvements have been made.

Helpful tweaks have chipped away at the “farmers-versus-scholars” mentality, by making career tracks more porous. Even if you are a scholar, you must still perform up to mark, and you do not get a free pass. In contrast, even if you are a non-scholar, there are still boundless opportunities for career advancement. An important myth to dispel is that only scholars can become leaders in the Public Service – this is untrue. Non-scholars can join the Public Service Leadership Programme (PSLP) too.

The message is clear: in the Public Service, there is no longer a fixation on grades and scholarships. Effort, aptitude, adaptability and interest are critical. If you apply for a job in the public sector, there are various entrance tests. You do not need to be afraid of these entrance tests, because even if you do not have a degree but genuinely have the skills, these tests allow us to identify your talent. Couple your demonstrated skills with a CV that lets us see your dedication, such as by including a passion project you embarked on or the Coursera courses you completed, and you stand a good chance of landing a job, regardless of your degree or grades.

As for the harsh realities, scholars still do receive more opportunities at work than non-scholars to demonstrate their abilities. Although these opportunities are tests for scholars, where they may fall short, scholars do receive the benefit of the doubt as others may still assume they have a certain level of competency. Additionally, your starting point in the Public Service does matter. Some may believe that if you start working in a statutory board you may not receive certain opportunities, as compared to starting in a ministry.

Yet, it is important to realise that there is no shortcut to doing excellent work. You have to earn what you seek. Nothing will be handed to you on a silver platter. Wherever you work, the playing field will likely be uneven – life is unfair, and this is just the hard truth. But rather than sulking, grit your teeth and get to work. And when you do succeed against all odds in bringing excellent work into fruition, claim your due credit. Not in the sense that you take advantage of others to elevate yourself or steal credit for what you did not do, but rather speaking up for your work and making it known to others – instead of being frustratingly humble and excessively self-effacing. 

Do not overestimate your odds of being involved in policy formulation. Only a tiny proportion of people in the Public Service are involved in policy formulation. An overwhelming majority is involved in policy delivery, i.e. implementation, operations, etc. There is nothing shameful about this, especially because one of Singapore’s strengths is its ability to effectively turn policies into reality, but you need to have realistic expectations of what a job in the Public Service will entail. If you are involved in policy delivery, you are much closer to the ground – you get to see an immediate cause-and-effect loop, and you may find your purpose more obvious. The two worlds – policy formulation and delivery – do diverge quite vastly, in terms of career track, pay and job experiences, so this is an important reality check for those keen on entering the Public Service.

Youths need to realise that most jobs entail stepping into a bureaucracy. This is especially true for jobs in the public sector, but do not expect to escape bureaucracy in the private sector either. You can move from a government job in a statutory board to a private sector job in a multinational enterprise (MNE), but you are simply hopping from a smaller bureaucracy to a larger one. Be prepared to face bureaucracy wherever you go.

Do not join the Public Service expecting a smooth-sailing path into politics. Your career trajectory in the Public Service is not going to be linear nor easy. The Public Service is not geared to help you succeed in your self-interests. You will have a hard time in the Public Service if your intentions are mostly self-centred and do not consider the public good, because the work will be tough and demand more altruistic motivations.

One part involves interfacing with the government. We may provide technical advice to the government when they consult experts in order to draft bills such as the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act, which was passed in Parliament on 9 November 2022. This may involve informing the government which features of our social media platforms can or cannot be introduced to support anti-scam measures by the government and enhance online safety.

The other part, which is arguably more interesting, is initiating private sector efforts for the public good. The world is truly our oyster for such initiatives. It may be a technical solution like incorporating more eco-friendly routes via our Park Connector Network (PCN) right into the maps on our smartphones. Another example would be launching private sector apprenticeships to upskill Singaporeans, particularly in response to the unemployment caused by Covid-19. It is a huge yet exhilarating responsibility to bring the immense talent of the private sector to bear and improve the lives of the public.

If I were considering a potential hire, I would be critically looking out for:

  1. the ability to engage in complex stakeholder management. I would like to know: what was your role in past negotiations? Who were the competing stakeholders? How did you negotiate all of their competing interests? Why did you choose to incur certain trade-offs over others?
  2. the ability to traverse unfamiliar territories and unpack situations, because more often than not, public policy has to address unprecedented problems
  3. creativity in solving problems

Currently, however, most private companies do not tend to hire fresh graduates for job roles related to public policy. A few years of experience in complex stakeholder management is often a prerequisite, whether in consultancies, think tanks, or the Public Service itself.

Implementation is key. Implementation makes or breaks a policy. In Singapore we already know that we have to consult the people who will carry out the policy on the ground as well as those who have to live with the impacts of the policy. We already know not to make policy in a vacuum. Yet, take a look at other countries, and you may come to realise that due to the law of unintended consequences, it may be wiser to implement a less-than-ideal policy well, rather than a utopian policy poorly. Singapore has done well in comparison to other countries because our public servants are able to implement policies successfully. MNEs have the confidence to invest in Singapore, because if Singapore promises that it will commit $100 billion to build critical infrastructure, it will definitely happen. The same cannot be said for many other countries.

Yet, we should also avoid being complacent. Singaporeans tend to think that we are already achieving the limits of what is possible. But in reality, other countries are implementing public policies that are much more complex than ours, in environments that are much more complex than Singapore’s. As such, there is value in learning from how governments across the world are able to function amidst immense complexity.

In addition, Singaporeans may not fully appreciate the importance of ethics in governance. Yet, time and time again, real-life examples of corruption in other countries highlight that it is extremely difficult to recover a nation that compromises its ethical spine. Once cynicism in the public sector sets in, it is one of the most corrosive forces ever.

Read the newspapers. This piece of advice may sound trivial, but the pressing social issues and stakeholders’ perspectives highlighted in the news cut to the core of public policy.

Reality will differ from academic theory. You may have studied philosophy or political science, but cast aside your preconceived notions when you start working. Keep an open mind, allow yourself to be guided by your experiences on the ground, and allow your theoretical ideas to be proven wrong. Be open to reality checks.

Only join the Public Service for the right reasons. The term “Public Service” should really be inverted: it is service to the public, not the public serving you. Many do not get this equation right. You need a strong sense of purpose during the toughest moments of a job in the Public Service, e.g. spending many late nights rushing to answer parliament questions or churn out the Budget. A good litmus test would be to ask yourself: would you still be interested in this field of work even if your salary progression falls short of your expectations? To be in the public sector, you need a heart for service.

Patience is also crucial. I used to work on policies governing Singapore’s water resources more than 10 years ago, and only now do I start to see some positive outcomes of my work back then. It takes time and patience to consult stakeholders, and it definitely takes time for your efforts to bear fruit.

Pick up self-advocacy. Give yourself due recognition when the time comes. When you do succeed, also remember to shine a light on others, and help them.

There is no unsuitable major or degree for a job in the Public Service. The Public Service is a 150,000-strong workforce, and thus there is room for every niche. The public sector is not monolithic, and you definitely do not need to study political science. There are roles for fighter pilots, engineers, social workers and so many more. Admittedly, those who study geopolitics or communications may be able to utilise a nugget of information or two from their days as a student, but I am a biochemist by training and that has never held me back in my career as someone involved in public policy.