Friday, May 21, 2010

Make public service a family affair

I enjoyed reading The Straits Times' interview -- "You need two hands to clap" --with DPM and Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean today (May 21) to mark Public Service Week. Mr Teo is also the minister in charge of the civil service.

What he says makes a lot of sense. He asks a rhetorical question: Would it not be a pleasure to have a society in which public officers and members of the public deal with each other with courtesy and mutual respect, and each understands and empathises with the other's roles as well as concerns?

Yes, "courtesy and mutual respect" is really the nub of the issue when it comes to any service relationship and is probably more critical in the public sector as tax-paying Singaporeans are generally less tolerant of rude or unhelpful public officers these days.

Mr Teo goes on to explain that although public officers have many roles, they are actually one service, one family, with one mission: Making Singapore better and working together to build one future for the country.

I like the "one family" concept. If this could be extended to the people they serve, I think many of the obstacles and problems the civil service faces each day would be reduced.

One could just imagine how a public officer would respond if someone he was serving was being treated as a member of his extended family!

The minister disapproves of a situation where a public officer is threatened by members of the public, who say: "If you don't give me what I want, I will write to the press, I will complain to the Prime Minister, I will make sure you lose your job."

I fully agree with him on that, but I know that sometimes there may be circumstances when a person is driven to seek other avenues of redress simply because he is caught between a rock and a hard place.

One final thought: We should stop referring to public officers as civil servants. The reason is that they cannot be our servants if we hope to be treated as part of the bigger family.


  1. What you reported is perhaps a one-off example. Every year the Prime Minister makes even more encouraging speeches at national day and new year events. They may think that the people are convinced. Sadly, he may not be aware that, within the government, many public officers behave in a helpless (polite though) and "easy" or evasive manner to discharge their duties or resolve problems, inconsistent with their ranks. There are quality managers in many ministries to gather feedbacks, but their roles seem to be merely co-ordinating and referring the feedbacks, including grievances and complaints, to the original officers, with no solution or redress. There seems to have no channels that the key leaders really know how the public officers perform, good or bad.

  2. Well said by Anonymous and I do have my fair shares of dealing with Officers in many ministry and perhaps they are 'too young' and not 'expose' to people at the ground.

    In any given opportunity if I do cross path with MPs or Ministers I tend to give my constructive feedback.

    Still, I like the concept of one family too and if only..... :)

  3. I think perhaps it's a case of 'civil servants' esp at the junior levels not given enough leeway and autonomy to make decisions (because they're 'scared' to screw up)... If they are given autonomy, then surely they'll be allowed to resolve problems in a more common-sensical manner rather than the usual 'sorry, cannot do because my boss say so' attitude which does not give them responsibility.

  4. More often, it is the middle level officers who are smart enough to take the easy way out from possible complications like complaints, grievances ... etc. It is easy to avoid, ignore or suppress cases that they are supposed to handle with empathy.

    Singaporeans and residents tend to be submissive, but the big brothers and parents (middle and senior officers)are not caring enough. It is still one family but I doubt if it is a happy one, still in harmony though.