“The new approach requires public officers to arm themselves with new capabilities and skills, including learning how to negotiate differences and build consensus” (Go Out and Engage Singaporeans, Minister Urges Public Officers, Adrian Lim).
Ministerial visits “help elevate the particular interests, demands, and concerns of each segment of the polity at the ground level, and show how they relate to the big-picture national goals that the government has set out to achieve” (A Better Feel Walking the Ground, The Straits Times).
The recent focus on ground engagement among politicians and civil servants – to “go out and engage stakeholders and Singaporeans” (ST, Nov. 22) and to develop and nurture “a consultative relationship between the government and citizens” (ST, Nov. 22) – is odd not because of its importance in the context of increasingly complex governance demands, but because it might have been assumed that it should be or that it is already the norm. Central to policymaking is an understanding of the problems and how they are perceived by the individuals affected by them, and these interactions with constituents are especially important if the politicians and civil servants hail from different demographic or socio-economic backgrounds, and therefore have dissimilar perspectives and life experiences.
More importantly, given that conversations can emerge organically among citizens, ground engagement does not always have to occur through formal or government-sanctioned channels. Recent movements such as Our Singapore Conversation, SGfuture, and the Youth Conversations – in addition to the more regular outreach efforts of the national feedback unit – guarantee access to specific communities who may already be plugged in, further facilitating discussion around predetermined issues, yet this also means others may be excluded. The challenges for the government, in other words, include reaching out to more diverse participants, allowing these participants to set the agenda, and taking into account the discourse which happens outside pre-established platforms.
Ensuring the regularity and sustainability of these endeavours will likewise be demanding, especially if engagement is seen as an additional obligation on top of a politician’s or civil servant’s roles and responsibilities. Instead, they – and their constituents – will benefit if regular outreach is weaved into the fabric of their day-to-day work, to the extent that they seek out interactions to weigh views against other forms of evidence. Walking the ground, in other words, does not have to happen within a structured context, and should come naturally to those who design policies for the ground. Well-meaning representatives will even move beyond echo chambers or ivory towers to seek out those with contrasting standpoints and vehement disagreements, for a more holistic evaluation of the collective.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.