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Get To The Future

12 September 2011

What will the future workplace in the Public Service be like? What skills will officers require to stay relevant amidst fast changes and increasing complexities? - Text by Richard Hartung, Photos by John Heng

For many years, the skills needed to succeed in the Public Service seemed little changed. Officers continually developed better technical and managerial skills, and they knew just how to acquire those capabilities.

No longer is the traditional model enough. As Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Vice Dean Stavros Yiannouka described it some time ago, the public sector in Singapore needs to “move away from an administrative and control mindset and adopt a ‘service’ culture.” Everything from a more demanding and diverse citizenry to social media and an ever-faster pace of change mean that officers need to develop a new approach to acquire the new skills they will need to succeed in the coming decades.

The China-Ready Guy

Edwin Goh, 29
Centre Director, Economic Development Board Guangzhou Centre
Effectively bilingual, Edwin is fascinated with the rise of the Chinese economy. He works in Guangzhou where he networks with business leaders, encouraging them to establish their international operations in Singapore.

A More Complex Workplace

A multitude of trends have led to this rapid shift towards needing vastly different skills. There is now a far greater need to develop skills that enable more effective engagement with the citizens who are more discerning and hence, demanding of information transparency, said Ms Lynn Koh, who was the Public Service Division (PSD) Senior Assistant Director for Strategic Development at the time of the interview.

PSD Director for Capability Development Sharon Ang added that an increasingly diverse citizenry means that officers need to be sensitive and understand different needs and challenges faced by different segments of the community.

Peoples’ desires for connection and interaction aren’t necessarily new. The Institute of Policy Studies said in its 2010 National Orientations Survey that peoples’ “desire for consultation” increased from 73 per cent in 1998 to 97 per cent in 2009. The recent general election, however, may have been the tipping point to compel far greater engagement.

Veteran journalist PN Balji wrote in Today that the atmosphere around the election clearly showed that “the Singaporean voter wants to engage and he wants to do so actively and energetically”. Writer Catherine Lim said afterwards that she sees “a newly empowered electorate.”

Another trend, Ms. Ang said, is the increasing speed at which information gets around and the constant evolution of new kinds of media for exchanging information. Not only do officers need to be media savvy, they have to access many more sources of information, which they need to filter, make sense of and decide how to incorporate in their recommendations. To make good decisions officers need to figure out, for example, whether a tweet or a blog post represents an outlier’s viewpoint or the start of a movement.

On a broader scale, Ms Koh said that “changes in the international landscape” also mean officers need an international outlook even if their work is focused domestically. As one example, she said, greater trade and connections with China mean officers need to be “China-ready.” In addition, officers may have to deal with complex issues such as climate change that require deeper expertise or specialised knowledge.

This more demanding and diverse public, the availability of information and increasing internationalisation are among the key drivers of the need for new skills.

The Networker

Lai Pei Hsien, 35
Assistant Director (Knowledge Management), Intellectual Property Office of Singapore
Pei Hsien networks within IPOS to get all departments to adopt KM practices. Outside IPOS, she belongs to the Information and Knowledge Management Society (IKMS) where she meets industry partners regularly to keep in touch with the latest tools and systems.

Changes in Other Countries

Singapore’s Public Service is not alone in needing new skills to stay relevant. Other countries also see a similar growing need.

The Canadian government, for example, conducts an annual assessment to track and analyse key trends. As Privy Council clerk Wayne Wouters noted in this year’s report, “almost every issue facing government today is multi-dimensional; almost all involve many players and an overabundance of information.” As a result, he said, the Canadian public service must develop “new approaches to creative and collaborative problem solving,” to take advantage of new technologies and work with players inside and outside government who are “demanding a larger role in public policy and in the design and delivery of programmes and services.”

Similarly, both the national government in the United Kingdom and local councils also see a need for new skills. As Birmingham City Council CEO Stephen Hughes told The Guardian, leaders and managers alike need “influencing skills” and to take “a corporate view”. Jo Ellen Grzyb, founding partner of Impact Factory which provides training for local councils, said “the type of management attributes that will make a difference in future are kindness, consideration and good listening skills”.

The Co-Creation Evangelist

Tan Boon Howe, 30
Senior Executive (Service Excellence and Government Organisation), Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office
With the increasing push, both from within and outside the Public Service, to open up space for dialogue between government and citizens, Boon Howe and his coworkers are working with various agencies to promote greater co-creation so that public and private resources can be utilised to deliver even better service to citizens.

Identifying New Skills

With the trends clearly showing a need for change, Ministries here are working to identify exactly what officers need and how best to prepare them to work differently.

PSD’s Strategic Workforce Planning Unit, for example, is conducting studies and engaging in inter-agency discussions to identify and address workforce capability gaps. As PSD Assistant Director for Strategic Development Christopher Tan said, officers work in a “more complex and uncertain operating environment, both internationally and domestically” so they need to get ready for possible futures by building the skills needed. Additionally, the Ministry of Manpower is leading a Future Skills Needs (FSN) study designed to identify skills needed in the future and to address potential gaps.

While both studies are still ongoing, preliminary results as well as analysis by public and private sector experts alike have identified several core capabilities that are likely to be especially important.

Engagement

One skill public service officers will clearly need is the ability to engage the public far more extensively and effectively than before. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said recently, officers need to tap the collective wisdom and knowledge of the people and stakeholders to help tackle the challenges.

Part of this engagement may come from “service co-creation,” which Singapore Management University Professor Eugene Tan explained is “a government and civil society partnership, with collaboration and cooperation being the hallmarks in the delivery of public services or in the formulation of policies.” (Co-creation was discussed in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Challenge.)

Empathy

Another key skill is greater empathy. At a grassroots level, as one blogger wrote on Reach (the feedback arm of the Government), officers should learn to “relate to the poor and underprivileged” and offer “understanding and help and compassion” so they can “alleviate their problems and give them a respectable life.”

At a management level, Public Service Commission Chairman Eddie Teo said in an interview with Challenge in July 2011 that empathy is “a vital quality for our public servants” so officers should “feel with their heart and not just think with the head.” His comment that “the principle behind the rule is always more important than the rule itself” indicates just how profound the shift actually is.

Communication

Empathy and engagement mean little if officers cannot communicate effectively, so becoming a better communicator is critical. At one level, this means everyone from call centre staff to top managers needs to learn to listen better and speak more clearly. In addition, PSD’s Ms Ang said, good communications means developing skills for influencing and inspiring people so that officers can “collaborate well in teams, work across borders and influence people who aren’t reporting” to them.

The New Media Guru

Desmond Yong, 27
Assistant Manager (Marketing Communications, Corporate Communications Division), Ministry of Health
Desmond specialises in using the various new media platforms – Twitter, Facebook and blogs – to engage Singaporeans on Health Ministry issues.

Technology savvy

Working differently also means officers must become proficient at using new media to engage citizens and colleagues alike. Outlining the variety of media to use, Head of Civil Service Peter Ong said in June that “Web 2.0 technologies such as instant messaging, social networking tools, blogs, forums, and wikis will allow officers to reach out to their counterparts real-time or exchange information in a more natural way.”

Proficient social media usage does not simply mean being present on Facebook and Twitter. Executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International’s senior client partner Michael Bekins says that public officers need to be “technology savvy” so that they really understand how media (beyond social media) work and have the ability to “reach to their customers through different channels.”

Innovation and Future Thinking

And as if this vast range of skills wasn’t enough, the FSN study also identified “innovation, design and systems thinking” as key skills for officers in a future where traditional processes are no longer sufficient.

Additionally, the discipline of future thinking is seen as a necessary component of any forward-thinking government or corporation. Former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho said in 2009 that “scenario planning is now a key part of the Government’s strategic planning process, and has proven useful in surfacing otherwise hidden assumptions and mental models about the world.”

To prepare amply for the future, there will be an increased demand for officers who can anticipate future scenarios and think about potential issues before they become reality. Officers should be able to make apt policy considerations and present options to deal with these situations when they arise. Such work can be undertaken by internal groups that are specifically tasked and empowered to discover blind spots in policy-making like futures groups, “skunk works” or “red teams”.

All these mean that public officers of the future will have to develop less tangible and far softer skills than they may ever have needed in the past.

A New Mindset

Preparing for this new future won’t happen simply by repeating what was done in the past. Acquiring skills like empathy and engagement are unlikely to happen just by sitting in a classroom.

As Mr. Yiannouka said, the danger is that Singapore’s talent management system “built on academic and managerial proficiency has been successful for so long that it may be slow to adapt”.

So, public officers will need to acquire these new capabilities in fundamentally different ways.

Rather than being placed in classrooms, Ms. Koh said officers will need to use “information seeking” skills, which means they need to know where to go to seek out accurate information. They will also need to leverage their extensive and diverse network to fill in any information gaps.

PSD’s Ms. Ang said that “a lot of the learning has to take place on the job” and it has to be driven by the officers themselves. So officers must develop an entirely new mindset towards learning, be committed to development and engage in continuous learning on their own. It may also mean being open to job postings which would expose them to new and different areas, for example, postings that are more operational in nature, to understand ground issues. Or it may mean going online to conduct policy research and learn best practices.

The common denominator, says Mr. Bekins, is that officers need “learning agility” so they can adapt to entirely new situations quickly. Learning agility means an officer can figure out new ways of doing things and apply learning to new situations so that they thrive anywhere. For many people, it might be a natural ability so they know what to do when they are thrown into the deep end. But for others, this is a skill that can be developed over time. Coaching from supervisors can speed up successes, adds Mr. Bekins, especially for executives who are thrown into challenging situations or new jobs requiring fast response.

Overall, Ms Koh said, the single most important piece of advice she would give a new officer is that they need to network widely in order to have more out-of-the-box thinking from cross-disciplinary perspectives. Whereas officers may only have needed to receive information in the past, effective networking will be critical for learning, advancement and successfully completing tasks in the future.

In an interview with Challenge in January, Head of Civil Service Peter Ong also expressed a desire to have more self-organised Communities of Practice that will share experience in various areas.

Grasp the Future in Your Hands

It is clear that successful public officers will need to develop an entirely new mindset about the skills relevant for the future. Skills like networking and empathy cannot be spoon-fed to officers either.

Amidst this paradigm shift, there is much room for success. Rather than sitting back and watching, officers need to reach out and grasp the future themselves.

Sharpen Your Axe Here

A shortlist of some Civil Service College courses

Suitable for managers:
Coaching Staff for Breakthrough Service:
Learn how coaching skills can help you to lead change, manage staff and transform your organisation’s service level to achieve service excellence.

MBTI Approach to Working More Effectively with People:
Learn how to enhance personal development and organisational effectiveness by understanding diverse personality factors, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Managing a Multigenerational Team:
This 2-day course helps supervisors to better understand the different approaches each generation brings to their work, hence maximising their joint contributions.

Suitable for all:
Professional Certificate in New Media:
This 5-day course gives you handson practice on a suite of social media platforms. It will help you to leverage them to complement communications efforts at work.

Facebook – a tool for better public engagement:
This 1-day course – packed with vital case studies from private and public sectors – focuses on techniques to generate content for better engagement with stakeholders.

Overseas Study Visits to China:
Develop a global mindset and understand the developments and events happening in China and their impact on Singapore. Pick up tips on cultural diversity and nuances too.

Critical Thinking:
Learn to apply the critical thinking framework and process in problem solving and decision-making to enhance work performance.

Building Positive Relationships through Effective Conversational Skills: Learn how to converse effectively and to build positive relationships through this highly interactive programme. Pick up tips on managing difficult people using effective conversational techniques.

The EQ Way to Customer Care: This 1-day course is designed for managers and executives to hone their ability to use emotions effectively to achieve professionalism in solving challenging customer situations.

Managing Complexity in A Dynamic Environment: In an increasingly uncertain and complex environment, the pace, intensity and scope of change is increasing. Our ability to cope with complexity determines how successful the organisation becomes. Learn about the Complexity Theory in this 3-day workshop and discover pragmatic approaches to thrive under conditions of uncertainty and new ways to utilise human networks.

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