Do we need neigh-sayers, or a public service that values innovative patriots?

By: Howard Lee

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Naysayers, subversives, challengers, contrarians, rebels, dissidents, troublemakers, alternative voices – any name that you want to slap on them, we hear an increasing call for the public service to offer alternative views to challenge the dominant government view on policies.

This view gained prominence at a recent forum where panellists “lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders”.

The truth is much further from that, and I wonder where the panellists at the forum got their scripts from.

Such a view is not only inaccurate, but highly dismissive of those within the service who do actively contribute alternative ideas on how the government can do better for its citizens.

To begin, the term “naysayer” is fraught with negatives. It suggests that those who disagree with the established views are not only combative, but should somehow be classified as a group of their own.

Years in the public service has taught me that what we lack is not alternative views, but courage within the system to bring them up.

I served many years with government agencies generally deemed to be on the cutting edge of innovation, but were nevertheless filled with people in positions of higher authority who were still conservative in their views. Risk taking was often met with a raised eyebrow, or at best with a request to “reconsider the options”.

But I have also worked with those who abhor dwelling too long on what should really have been a simple decision with minimal consequences. “Let’s just do it. It’s easier to say sorry later than to justify it now,” I remember one middle manager saying with a cheeky smile.

No, we don’t lack innovative thought and independent streaks in the public service. What we lack is courage from those who should have been the champions of innovation.

It is not that our senior public officers are too comfortable where they are. Risk adversity in our public service stems from a more basic desire to fit in. We do not want to express our ideas, particularly if we feel strongly about it. We fear being viewed as the combative ones, the misfits, the smart-alecs, the radicals, those who seek to bend the “rules” because we cannot fit into them.

Hence, calling us naysayers is precisely what we should not do. It marginalises those who wish to serve the public in ways that do not conform to norms. It makes us warry, discouraged and lose faith in the system.

Ironically, it is actually the system that has failed us. Our public service has been running dry on ideas to improve our nation, but it is not due to the lack of innovation. Those in the rank and file who are still motivated to challenge the status quo would have sufficient ideas on their own. For any that they lack, they would find adequately challenging and invigorating ones among activists and lobbyists that they come into contact with.

They are patriots within the service, silently working with patriots outside the service, but never recognised for it.

Yet, their effort would be for nought if they have bosses who say to them, “I’m open to new ideas, but of course, they must fall within guidelines…” That would have been an immediate failure for innovation. Setting boundaries for free will is nothing more than the imprisonment of ideas.

Unfortunately, this is the same kind of narrative that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is using to describe his selection process for potential office holders, in his rather arcane system of “giving high marks”, as a school teacher would, but only to people “whose views he respect” and “can have a productive disagreement with”.

In our public service, our problem is not that we do not have innovation, but that innovation never rises.

Our public service is full of people who prefer the status quo. Many of them are young scholars in middle management who have quickly gotten used to the tried and tested, depending too much on them to keep the bosses happy. They achieve short-term success, at the risk of long-term benefits that are deemed too hazy, risky, implausible or a pain in the ass to justify. They would take that same mindset with them as they become senior managers, and the cycle perpetuates.

And we wonder why there are no bright sparks in government anymore.

Innovation must be unrestrained, and it must also be seen to be unrestrained, free from the labels and stigma that we associate it with. We need to build a culture where those who offer fresh perspectives are seen as true patriots. We need to encourage disruption and disruptive behaviour as the norm. “Why not” and “what if” must become the daily lexicon. And this must permeate into every level of the hierarchy, starting right at the top. Risk is not pissing off the bosses and losing our jobs, but losing the faith of citizens.

Until we learn to do this, asking for more “naysayers” is just asking for yes-men more adept at lip service. Please, stop wasting our time.