Some public servants told me mediocrity is rewarded: Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng
Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng has given a widely-lauded Budget debate on Tuesday, Feb. 27.
In what has become a pet topic of his, Ng said in Parliament that public servants are afraid of speaking up in case they anger their superiors, have their appraisals affected and get passed over for promotion, just because they rocked the boat and upset the status quo.
This is a follow-up to his 2017 Budget debate speech when Ng said the Public Service has “lost its heart” in its pursuit to automate processes.
Ng said his speech is the result of candid conversations with public servants in closed door dialogue sessions.
He said some public servants he met told him directly that it is almost impossible to feel motivated to do more because mediocrity is rewarded.
Worse, he said he had even received messages forwarded to him to be careful, after he spoke up on this issue in 2017: “My sister was also passing me messages from her friends, telling me to be careful.”
This problem stems from a fear of speaking honestly.
Ng recounted an incident where a public servant stopped halfway when speaking behind closed doors with him and admitted to feeling afraid of speaking out because Ng is an MP.
Ng said, quoting what he was told: “… actually I’m feeling quite afraid of opposing your view, as you are an MP. And I realise that subconsciously I started my sentence by saying ‘with all due respect sir’, in hope that you will be less offended by what I was about to say”.
Ng also said this culture of subordinates doing what they are told and not rocking the boat will be detrimental to the Public Service.
It will result in the “loss of good ideas, of better ways of doing things and the loss of good public servants”.
To prevent these from happening, Ng said the public servants whom he has spoken to have suggested revamping the appraisal system, which they felt prevents them from speaking up.
In what is perhaps the most radical recommendation, Ng said changing the appraisal system where superiors are being graded by subordinates will encourage public servants to speak up with less fear.
Ng said some multinational corporations, such as Google and Alibaba, already use a “360 appraisal review” that allows employees to review and grade their direct managers.
Ng said: “The current appraisal system (in the Public Service) does not incentivise risk-taking and innovation, and I suggest we change it urgently.”
At one point, Ng even quoted the comic Calvin and Hobbes: “If you care, you just get disappointed all the time. If you don’t care, nothing matters, so you are never upset.”
Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Budget Debate 2018
Sir, I support this Budget and I’m thankful for a Budget, which is forward-looking, and focuses not only on the dollars and cents, but very importantly also on the heartware of this nation, about caring for others, about looking after those who have helped to build Singapore.
This year, I have 18 specific recommendations for the government and have filed 18 cuts. These recommendations are, however, not mine but that of members of the public and civil society organisations.
Together, we have brainstormed, edited and edited and edited and crystalised these 18 recommendations. My heartfelt thanks to members of the public and groups such as Architects of Life, Autoimmune Illness Support Group Singapore, Singapore Youth for Climate Action, AWARE and TWC2. I thank them wholeheartedly for being a part of this.
My speech last year
Sir, in my budget speech last year I spoke about the public service. The public service is the heart of our entire system and they play a crucial role. The success of this budget and Singapore relies heavily on them and this year, I will again focus my speech on how we can strengthen our public service.
The fear of speaking up
In the past year, I have reached out to public servants through closed door dialogue sessions to better understand their concerns, the difficulties they face and their aspirations.
I am grateful that they have shared their views with me very honestly and candidly.
Almost without fail, I will be asked two questions: The first is “Will I get into trouble if I speak up and share my thoughts with you”.
And for those we meet, there is a general consensus that people will get into trouble if they speak up in the public service.
They fear that they will be labelled as troublemakers and that their bosses will get angry. They fear it will affect their appraisal and their promotion.
This fear is troubling, extremely troubling. In fact sir, after I delivered my budget speech about the public service last year, there were Facebook comments and I received messages telling me to be careful, I will get into trouble for speaking up too much. My sister was also passing me messages from her friends, telling me to be careful.
I’ve made it a point to publicly say that I didn’t get into trouble for speaking up, that this fear is mythical.
Having said that, this fear of speaking up, whether we want to acknowledge and accept it, is very real.
A panel of academics and former senior civil servants echoed the same sentiments at a forum last year, “that Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority. They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders.”
But PM’s wish for Singapore is that we “be blessed with a ‘divine discontent’ – always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”
We do have this ‘divine discontent’ but what we need to work on is ensuring we are able to hear it and that people are not afraid to speak up, that they do not accept the status quo and that they will fight for changes that will lead to an even better Singapore.
This fear of showing this ‘divine discontent’ was also present in my meetings with public servants. I remember one sharing his views in the meeting, which was contrary to mine and halfway through he stopped and said “actually I’m feeling quite afraid of opposing your view, as you are an MP. And I realise that subconsciously I started my sentence by saying “with all due respect sir”, in hope that you will be less offended by what I was about to say”.
This culture of being afraid, of keeping quiet, of not rocking the boat is detrimental to the public service, to any organisation and most of all detrimental to Singapore.
This culture results in the loss of good ideas, of better ways of doing things and the loss of good public servants.
As PM has so rightly said “I try not to surround myself with “yes, sir” men. That is important because if all you have are people who say “three bags full sir”, then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous. You need people who have their own views, whose views you respect, whom you can have a productive disagreement with, and work out ideas which you might not have come up with, or who improve on ideas you had.”
We need to make sure we don’t have a public service filled with “yes sir” men and women.
To demolish this culture, we need to break our entrenched processes and bureaucracy.
The same entrenched processes and bureaucracy Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke about at the Public Service Conference in 2017.
We urgently need to cut the extremely long red tape that may be frustrating not just for members of the public but also our public servants.
One suggestion from the public servants is a revamp of the appraisal system, which they feel prevents them from speaking up.
I suggest that we redesign the public service appraisal system by studying the 360 appraisal review used by the private sector in MNCs like Google and Alibaba.
This will allow employees to review and grade their direct managers, resulting in a holistic 360 review, instead of just a one-way top-down appraisal system.
We do have some 360 appraisals currently but I understand that this is not regular and does not seem to include all public servants. DPM Teo had said that “leaders receive 360 degree feedback on their leadership qualities when they attend milestone leadership development programmes”.
Again, many public servants I’ve spoken to fear a bad appraisal if they speak up, oppose their bosses’ views and challenge the status quo. Hence, they don’t speak up although their suggestions may in fact improve the lives of their fellow countrymen.
The current appraisal system does not incentivise risk-taking and innovation, and I suggest we change it. Urgently.
Nothing will change
And so that is first question I’m asked “Will I get into trouble if I speak up and share my thoughts with you”.
The second question is “Even if I meet you and share my thoughts, nothing will change so what’s the point”.
The second question to be honest is much more troubling than the first. It shows that these public servants have given up.
They are thinking: Why care? Why try, then get frustrated and then get upset for nothing?
We are in danger of becoming what Calvin (in the comic book Calvin and Hobbes) said “If you care, you just get disappointed all the time. If you don’t care, nothing matters, so you are never upset.”
We need to make sure that, one we make it easier for public servants to voice their concerns and, two make sure that we follow up on the concerns they raise. We need to ensure they feel empowered.
Some public servants I met also told me directly that it is almost impossible to feel motivated to do more because mediocrity is rewarded. Status quo is a prized possession. They want to make a difference, which is why they joined the public service, but they do not feel empowered to do so.
Through these meetings, I also learnt that each Ministry or Statutory Board functions differently. Some public servants shared that they have regular dialogues with their CEO and sometimes their Permanent Secretary. They have pigeonhole sessions where they can share their views openly.
Moving forward, we should continue this open and transparent practice of having all-hands staff meetings frequently, where all levels of public servants have direct communication channels with senior management.
This should be made available to all public servants and not just in some Ministries or Statutory Boards.
I also suggest that we have an internal Quality Service Manager (QSM) within Ministries and Statutory Boards.
We are all aware of the role of existing QSMs. They focus on external feedback from members of the public. I suggest we put in place internal QSMs to follow up on feedback given by public servants and similar to how we handle public feedback, they ensure that the feedback is looked into and the loop is closed.
They will help give our public servants a voice and ensure their views, feedback and suggestions are looked into so that the public service is strengthened.
A career in the civil service?
Sir, whatever I’ve shared here is what I’ve heard directly from public servants themselves and is perhaps not new.
These sentiments are already in the public domain and let me share parts of what Joanne Poh wrote a few weeks ago, in a post entitled “Civil Service: The Ins and Outs of the Iron Rice Bowl”, where she provided advice on whether a career in the civil service is for you.
She said, “While there are many perks of working in the civil service, be prepared to work in an environment that some find stifling.
There tends to be a very strict top-down hierarchy and things are done 100% by-the-book, so if you’re a young upstart who’s dreaming of doing great things, be prepared to know your place, shut up and just do what your boss tells you to.
Some people are happy to just be quiet and do as they’re told in exchange for a stable job with good pay and perks. But if you’re the type who wants to be a superhero and change the world, you won’t find the outlet you seek in the service.
It’s ironic that MPs are calling for civil servants to be “less rigid” and to “think outside the box”. Recently, MP Dr. Lee Bee Wah in an interview even suggested that civil servants give “cut and paste” answers.
Ask any young civil servant and they’ll tell you that their superiors frown upon those who speak up or try to introduce fresh ideas.
Sir, we urgently need to change this perception, change this system, recognise that we need to empower our public servants and ensure that the public service attracts superheroes and people who want to change the world.
We have called for the public service to innovate. And Minister Ong told public servants that, “The main obstacle is ourselves”.
It is indeed. We and by we, I mean us in this House and the senior management in the public service need to make sure that our public servants work in a system where everyone can speak up and where everyone can be heard.
Sir, let me end with a quote as always.
In the word of Napoleon “The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people.”
Our public servants are good people. As I shared in my budget speech last year, “These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore”.
But we now need to make sure that they don’t work in a system where they feel they need to be silent, where they feel they need to be “Yes sir” men or women and where they feel that nothing will change even if they speak up.……
Singapore parliament Politics
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