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A suggestion to improve the public service
22 Mar 2017 (148 views)

President Tony Tan asked the civil service to look for ways to improve the public service, rather than simply follow the existing rules. 

I applaud him for this message. The first and most important step to solve a problem is to recognize that we have the problem. 

We do have a very serious problem. I described it as a disease. Too many people, not just in the civil service but the business community as well, are just following standard operating procedures (SOP) blindly. 
Someone told me that this is the culture drilled in the Singapore Armed Forces. The SOP have to be followed totally, without question. Perhaps this was necessary for military discipline. Any deviation will result in punishment.

Even after leaving military service, the men continued to adopt adopting this practice for years. It has become a habit which will be very difficult to change.

When I was running a large company, I was able to implement the change in mindset quite successfully. In spite of receiving young people drilled in the SOP culture, I was able to get them to change their mindset. 

This is what I have done.

a) Every standing instruction (our name for SOP) usually allows the staff to exercise discretion within a specified limit. For example, the staff may waive interest on late payment up to a certain amount. It also has a clause that says, "If this SI results in decisions that are not acceptable to customers, you may refer this matter to your supervisor".

b) The supervisor is empowered to deviate from the SI within a larger band or to refer the matter to the next level.

c) All exercise of discretion will be recorded into an online system. This will be reviewed by the next higher level. If there is no objection within 2 days, the action will be considered as approved. If the discretion is exercised wrongly, the staff will be coached. In practice, there are few instances where the discretion was used wrongly. The impact of the mistake was usually negligible.

The system worked extremely well. It fostered a culture of innovation and the use of common sense. The staffs enjoyed the empowerment given to them. 

It also helped to identify the changes that have to be made to the SI to improve the practices.

I hope that the public service will adopt a similar system. Over a year or two, they will see a significant change in the mindset of the civil servants.


A suggestion to improve the public service
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President Tony Tan asked the civil service to look for ways to improve the public service, rather than simply follow the existing rules. 

I applaud him for this message. The first and most important step to solve a problem is to recognize that we have the problem. 

We do have a very serious problem. I described it as a disease. Too many people, not just in the civil service but the business community as well, are just following standard operating procedures (SOP) blindly. 
Someone told me that this is the culture drilled in the Singapore Armed Forces. The SOP have to be followed totally, without question. Perhaps this was necessary for military discipline. Any deviation will result in punishment.

Even after leaving military service, the men continued to adopt adopting this practice for years. It has become a habit which will be very difficult to change.

When I was running a large company, I was able to implement the change in mindset quite successfully. In spite of receiving young people drilled in the SOP culture, I was able to get them to change their mindset. 

This is what I have done.

a) Every standing instruction (our name for SOP) usually allows the staff to exercise discretion within a specified limit. For example, the staff may waive interest on late payment up to a certain amount. It also has a clause that says, "If this SI results in decisions that are not acceptable to customers, you may refer this matter to your supervisor".

b) The supervisor is empowered to deviate from the SI within a larger band or to refer the matter to the next level.

c) All exercise of discretion will be recorded into an online system. This will be reviewed by the next higher level. If there is no objection within 2 days, the action will be considered as approved. If the discretion is exercised wrongly, the staff will be coached. In practice, there are few instances where the discretion was used wrongly. The impact of the mistake was usually negligible.

The system worked extremely well. It fostered a culture of innovation and the use of common sense. The staffs enjoyed the empowerment given to them. 

It also helped to identify the changes that have to be made to the SI to improve the practices.

I hope that the public service will adopt a similar system. Over a year or two, they will see a significant change in the mindset of the civil servants.