“At the same time, the thoughts, suggestions, and initiatives of others, from the community to the private sector and civil society, should be sought so there is broad ownership over Singapore’s future, he added” (Public Service ‘Must Evolve To Meet Changing Needs’, Toh Ee Ming).
While it may be important for public servants to look at issues from “the ordinary citizen’s perspective” – to “walk in the shoes of people from different walks of life whenever possible and bear in mind that the issues they face often do not fall under a single agency” (TODAY, Oct. 28), according to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam – the diversity of these officers should not be overlooked. In fact, it can be argued that if the Public Service is staffed by individuals from a wider range of backgrounds and expertise, it would not be necessary to stress cognisance of “the ordinary citizen’s perspective”, as if there is a marked distinction between public officers and “the ordinary citizen”.
Diversity was also a key theme, during the speech made by Head of Civil Service Peter Ong. He spoke of the management of diversity and alluded to “the needs of [Singapore’s] diverse population”, so the composition of the Public Service should – by extension – matter too.
Two persisting concerns for instance are the demographics of students awarded the Public Service Commission scholarships, and the distinction between degree-holders and diploma-holders. The government has sought to address both – by promoting socio-economic mobility and merging progression schemes respectively – but results will take time, and the worry is that public servants and their leaders may not be representative of Singapore’s “diverse population”. In this vein, calling them to “walk in the shoes of people from different walks life” might not only obscure these concerns, but might be perceived to be superficial.
To some extent interactions on the ground will be beneficial. The concerns of constituents can be aggregated through unannounced visits, and the experience of public transportation ascertained through regular commutes, yet ultimately – beyond conversations and the occasional encounter with communities – the profiles of the public officers and where they come from would also determine how the Public Service respond to needs and norms.