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Digital Natives in the Civil Service

06 July 2010

Expect some fundamental changes in the Civil Service as an Internet savvy generation gradually takes over, - Prof Ang Peng Hwa

Digital Natives in the Civil Servant

The Internet went public around the world in 1994. If one assumes some meaningful exposure to the computer at age four or five, it means that the “digital natives” – the generation that grew up using the Internet – should be 20 to 21 years old in 2010. Some of these digital natives should be entering the Singapore Civil Service now.

How will these digital natives change the Civil Service?

Empowerment

The Internet gives one the feeling that one can read whatever one wishes, talk to whomever one wishes on whatever one wishes, and do whatever one wishes. In Singapore, except for hot-button issues touching on race and religion, critical views of the government and its policies have not been prosecuted.

The Civil Service does not operate like that. There are sensible reasons for this. A Civil Service needs predictability.

If any officer can change the rule, the Civil Service becomes unpredictable, and then it is not so different from a feudal I-want-it-my-way days of yore.

But the widespread use of technology will flatten the organisational structure in practice, if not on the organizational chart. The civil servant at the end of the line dealing with the public wants

Openness

As information is increasingly shared, e-mailed or put onto the Internet, it becomes easier to search and access information. Openness fosters transparency and reduces corruption, leading to better governance.

The Civil Service will thus have to be more open in allowing civil servants to speak and in sharing information generally. Already the British civil service has developed detailed guidelines on what civil servants can post online. Our Official Secrets Act, inherited from the very same Britons, will need a re-looking.

Responsiveness

One author said that in the 1970s, it took him three weeks to reply to a letter and the reader was grateful for the reply; not so long ago, he replied to a reader’s e-mail and was berated for not responding via IM (instant messaging). I expect that both internally and externally, the speed of communication will accelerate.

In important areas, however, speed is not efficiency but haste, which works show the way in being more responsive while managing expectations.

As I was writing this conclusion, I was thinking:

am I saying that the Civil Service will be an exciting place to work in the future? The answer has to be “Yes”.

All over the world, I encounter people who are not so much interested in making money as in making a difference – like, well, civil servants. Their natural duck-to-water fluidity with digital technology and their idealism, together managed well, make the digital natives a potent force for much good.


Prof Ang Peng Hwa researches and teaches media law and policy with a special emphasis on Internet governance, at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University. He is currently Director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre.

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