Public service leadership has to be more ‘permeable’, says PM Lee

Public service leadership has to be more ‘permeable’, says PM Lee

Singapore’s success depends on the public service working hand in hand with a first-class political leadership, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Jan 17) at the annual public service leadership dinner held in Shangri-La Hotel. Cheryl Goh reports.

SINGAPORE: The public service must become more “permeable”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Jan 17) as he addressed the need to build a deeper and more diverse public service leadership corps to cope with a changing operating environment. 

The changes include the advent of social media, which has changed public discourse and allows even small groups to have loud voices, making it difficult to determine what public sentiment is and harder to build a democratic consensus, Mr Lee told senior civil servants at the annual public service leadership dinner held in Shangri-La Hotel.

For the public service to be able to take a more holistic view and instinctively see issues from multiple perspectives, its leadership as a whole needs a broader diversity of experiences, temperaments and mindsets, he said, adding that this starts with making the public service leadership more permeable.

READ: Public service needs to work with first-class political leadership for Singapore to succeed - PM Lee

To do this, the public service should more deliberately select and recruit public service leaders for diversity at the entry point, said Mr Lee, in his speech ahead of a General Election expected to be held this year. 

The Public Service Commission (PSC) has started doing this in recent years, Mr Lee noted. When interviewing scholarship applicants, PSC looks beyond intellectual acumen and good character, to also consider unique backgrounds and experiences, he said.

Other ways of becoming more permeable include allowing more transfers of officers between the Public Service Leadership Programme and Administrative Service, and recruiting more mid-career employees, he said.


Mid-career entrants bring to the public service expertise that is lacking, especially direct experience of how the private sector operates, and what it takes to win business and make a bottom line, he said.

“We have not been very successful in mid-career recruitment. This is not for the lack of trying, but often it fails to work out because the gulf in culture and mission between the private and public sectors is just too deep,” he said. While a mid-career entrant will almost by definition “lack the knowledge and instincts that take many years to build”, it is precisely this freshness of perspective that makes them valuable, Mr Lee said.

“They can, when it works out, see with fresh eyes what we have long taken for granted, and ask some basic questions why they should be so. We should not make mid-career entrants conform to what we already are, we don’t need another person who is just like us,” Mr Lee said.

More effort should be put into taking in their ideas and perspectives, he said.


A new operating environment also requires transformation and building new capabilities, Mr Lee said.

One important move is to develop a broader base of leaders beyond the Administrative Service, which has traditionally been heavily relied upon to lead public sector organisations and drive change from the top.

He noted the strengths of administrative officers. They are trained to see strategic, whole-of-Government perspectives, work across domains and marshal resources from different parts of the Government to pre-empt and solve problems, and bring to bear objective analyses and new perspectives, and strive to bring about needed changes and keep the service up-to-date and refreshed, Mr Lee said.

However, he acknowledged that they do not have sufficient time to develop deep domain expertise like the officers in the professional services.

“In this new operating environment, facing far more complex challenges, we need to build up deeper domain expertise and hence to recalibrate the balance,” he said.

The public service leadership needs to possess, collectively, deeper expertise in key domains, whether it is education, healthcare, urban planning, communications or foreign policy, he said.

“It needs first-rate talent and leaders in all these professional areas to institutionalise deep competence and capabilities within our public sector organisations. These officers can then partner and complement the administrative officers as part of the larger collective public sector leadership,” he said.

This is the reason the Public Service Leadership Programme, which allows an alternative career path for officers to rise without going through the Administrative Service, was set up several years ago, Mr Lee said.

However, he stressed that a cadre of high quality of Administrative Service officers remains critical, because with only domain experts and specialists, the public service will not instinctively think or operate with a whole-of-Government perspective, he said.


Mr Lee also urged the public service to have more diversity.

A diversity of backgrounds and experiences will sensitise public sector leaders to the issues and concerns of different segments of the population, he said. 

Policies can affect, in major ways, small or niche groups who may be disadvantaged if they are overlooked or not heard. He gave the examples of needy households, businesses in particular sectors, the labour movement, industry associations and nature groups

To help build this ground understanding, young public sector leaders have been posted to the People’s Association, Social Service Offices and the unions, and to private companies like Shell and SingTel, as well as new economy firms like Shopee and Lazada.

Some civil servants also attend citizen engagement sessions and Meet-the-People Sessions as part of their milestone courses to observe the issues Singaporeans face on the ground.

“These are invaluable exposure opportunities and we should do more of them,” he said.

Source: CNA/ja(hs)