‘Think big, start small, act fast’: public sector innovation, Singapore style


Don’t over-plan and don’t get bogged down by consensus-seeking, says Singapore’s public sector innovation minister. He sets out his four key principles to boost new ideas.

Innovation involves stepping into the unknown — something that can be difficult for government to do. So it can be natural that public sector agencies will try to manage this risk by planning ahead.

But “there is no perfect comprehensive grand plan” when it comes to innovation, says Singapore’s Public Service Innovation Minister Ong Ye Kung.

“If we over-plan, we run the risk of paralysis by analysis. It is also not very helpful to ask for three or five years of KPIs even before we try,” he said in a recent speech to public servants.

“In transformation and innovation, we just need to start somewhere, know roughly where we want to go, and learn along the way. It is a gradual evolution, not a big bang creation.

“As a well-known dictum goes: Think big, start small, act fast. Let passion and belief, not bureaucratic reports and KPIs, drive the process.”

Ong, a former civil servant himself, outlined the four principles he sees as key to sparking innovation in the public sector: innovation is bottom-up, so remain open-minded; take a whole-of-government approach to optimise outcomes; don’t boil the ocean; and preserve trust between political leadership and the public service.

“First, innovation is by nature bottom-up. Even if government comes up with a grand and bold plan, it is bottom-up ideas and actions that give substance to the plan to make it successful,” he said.

Being open-minded means adapting to circumstances as they change. For example, the Singaporean government called a tender for an operator to run a bike-sharing program. “The conventional wisdom then was that such schemes needed some government support and funding in order to be sustainable, he explained.

But then several bike sharing companies entered the market with their own concepts, so the government realised public money was not needed in this case and “wisely” decided not to award a tender. “Things will happen without plan nor permission,” he noted.

“We have to operate in the real world, and not a policy incubator.”

Whole-of-government coordination is important, though in working together agencies need to be careful to avoid cooperation becoming a talk shop.

“The concept of whole-of-government is to encourage agencies to work through the trade-offs and try to optimise the costs and benefits at the national level. But there are inherent risks in such an inter-agency process, as you all will know.

“We can spend too much time on consensus-building, and we end up achieving very little. Optimisation can become a euphemism for the lowest common denominator, or compromises that actually sub-optimise. As the joke goes, if you ask a committee to build a horse, it will come up with a camel, although it still has four legs.

“Like it or not, when it comes to inter-agency issues, we simply need wise and strong leadership — both at the political and civil service levels — that articulates the objectives, identifies and decides the trade-offs, and implements the changes.”

Ong also highlighted the importance of the public service and political leaders working together effectively — “For a country to do well, we need these two hands to clap,” he stated.

Noting that it is politicians’ responsibility to stand up for wrongfully criticised public servants, he urged bureaucrats to always remember the point of their job: serving the people. Part of this is brainstorming new concepts and challenging politicians.

“At the stage of formulating policies and deriving solutions, by all means, research all past experiences, offer all suggestions, including radical ones; debate, help us derive the best solution.

“Don’t try to second-guess the policy preferences of the ministers. Look at issues, analyse the problems, explore options and express your recommendations and views honestly. We may or may not agree with you, but we want people to come to meetings, ready to contribute their ideas and be open to the views of others,” he argued.

“The same spirit applies to ministers too. We must also be open to challenge, confront trade-offs squarely, and debate the merits of various solutions to today’s problems.

But it’s important to be aware of the realities of life on the ground, too. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“We have to operate in the real world, and not a policy incubator. This is called ‘theory of the second best’ — where we often have to set aside theoretical ideals and work on a sound and practical understanding of how people are likely to react and respond to any policy change.”

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