Today, I want to attempt to discuss the role of the public service in improving a nation’s competitiveness by drawing heavily on the Singapore context, one that is often regarded as the best in the world. Like Singapore, Rwanda has benefited from visionary leadership and it will need this very leadership in the future.
That said, future stability and prosperity will depend on the ability of Rwanda’s human resources, not least the public service, which will be called upon to translate visionary leadership into reality on the ground.
With this in mind, public sector officers need to adopt a different mindset, behaviour and skills to operate in a dynamic and fluid environment. In short, as we are witnessing daily that the world of the 21st century is quite different from that of the 20th century - it is ever-changing and its direction remains highly uncertain - and our human resources must be able to adapt to these changes at all times.
Today’s world is also one where individual governments have, to a large extent, only limited ability to shape their direction.
It is in this regard that I have identified three critical parameters of the change program:
First, government and the public sector need to allow and foster innovation. While this should be primarily in the private sector, they themselves also need to be the source of innovative policies and approaches to public service.
My professor at the Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) School calls this phenomenon, “dynamic governance,” shifting the public sector’s burden of proof away from having to explain why things should change towards, having to explain why things would ever need to stay the same.
Second, the public sector must move away from the control-oriented mindset of administration and adopt a “service” culture and attitude towards citizens, one that focuses on the citizen as a customer to be served rather than as the recipient of administrative direction.
Finally, only the most qualified people should occupy positions of responsibility and authority. “Most qualified” pays no regard to ethnic, religious, political or socio-economic background, but rather competence to accomplish the tasks at hand.
Moreover, this talented group of individuals should be rewarded for their efforts with salaries benchmarked against those of successful private sector corporations. They should also be held accountable for results just like their peers in the private sector; treating the public sector more like the private sector will be the most efficient way of ensuring that highly qualified employees are attracted to, and retained in the public sector.
This brings me to an interesting question, as to whether Singapore has consequently solved the challenge of creating a public sector for the 21st century.
Only 45 years after independence, in the first decade of the 21st century, does Singapore boast a fully developed economy that still enjoys the growth rates of a developing economy?
One might be tempted to answer yes; however, this is not quite the case, as no system conceived and designed by human beings can be perfect. The two main challenges currently facing Singapore are:
Complacency: There is a danger that the public sector in Singapore will suffer the fate of many successful organisations and indulge in complacency and the false confidence that it has discovered the formula for perpetual success.
Risk Aversion: Innovation depends on a willingness to take risks and accept well-intentioned mistakes as well as, from time to time, outright failure. There is a danger here that a public service culture that has for too long gotten used to success may not be willing to compromise and accept that calculated risk-taking carries with it the possibility of failure.
At this point, I am cautiously optimistic that Singapore’s efforts to reshape its public service for the 21st century are bearing fruit. On the other hand, both Singapore’s government and public sector are well known for their refusal to take anything for granted and hence I have faith that the forces of change have been institutionalized sufficiently to create a dynamic and adaptive public sector.
I am also strongly optimistic that if Rwanda follows this model, it will bear the same fruits of success that Singapore bore so quickly after its own independence.
The author writes from Singapore and is a contributor for The New Times.