Sunday, March 10, 2013

Making sure govt policies don't exceed 'use by' date

Mar 09, 2013
HOW can a government steer for an age which throws up surprises all the time, involving different people with different interests that clash, with no immediate solution?

That was the thrust of former Civil Service chief Peter Ho's talk at NTU's yearly complexity conference on how the Government planned ahead.

Governments in general, he noted, do try to look forward in everyone's best interests. "But the thing is," he stressed, "whatever policy they follow has a 'use by' date because the world keeps changing, and is changing faster these days."

He cited as an example the Government's Stop At Two population control policy, which was introduced in 1973.

He said the Government introduced that after being convinced by the 1972 Club Of Rome report on limits to growth. That report said over-population would threaten humanity's very existence - but ignored the possibility that new technology such as high-yielding rice would help all cope.

But then, Mr Ho pointed out, when Stop At Two became dysfunctional, as it were, within nine years of its launch, "we can at least give the Government credit for acknowledging that the policy was dysfunctional, and that they tried to change the policy". That led to the Government reversing the Stop At Two policy in 1987 with its "Have Three Or More, If You Can Afford It" policy. That said, he was doubtful as to whether the series of baby-boosting measures that followed would work, given that other countries had tried and failed.

At question time, Mr Ho declined to comment in detail on the Population White Paper, noting that his largely non-Singaporean audience would not be familiar with it. But he did flag two concerns: First, that nobody had answered the question, "What happens after 6.9 million in 2030?" and that he had hoped for a discussion as to which way Singapore's economy should take in future - for example, how much would it rely on manufacturing and how much on services?

Second, he thought that the current growth model was "simplistic" in assuming that the only way to grow further was to get more workers in.

All told, he thought the paper had "at the simplistic level, not been well communicated and at the sophisticated level, not been well presented".

Complexity science don Robert Axelrod then queried him as to whether, given the need to experiment more in today's complex world, there was a need for "major change" in Singapore in the form of governing and having an independent press, or would the Government just "keep its successful record of top-down management"?

Mr Ho replied: "I will respond in a slightly different way. I think changes are going to happen, but change is being forced on the Government. What should have happened is that change should have been anticipated earlier and changes made so you're not in this position."

And while he stressed the Government had used a toolkit early on to forecast the future, "the fact that change could have been done earlier but wasn't had to do with cognitive differences we have to deal with".

Cognitive differences refer to the different ways in which people perceive or understand something, while the tools in the Government's kit include scenario planning, backcasting - or imagining your best and worst fears then finding fresh solutions to them - and policy gaming, where the Government thinks as soldiers do.

Mr Ho did not comment on change in the press here.

Then again, he stressed, not changing fast enough was the dilemma faced by all successful entities. He cited the work of Harvard management guru Clayton Christensen, who showed that success leads to inertia because no one would chance everything on a new way of doing things amid uncertainty. "The Government has an impeccable record of delivering the goods," Mr Ho noted, "so why would it want to change its winning formula?"

The best way out of such a dilemma, Mr Ho suggested, was to end the prevalent "my turf" mentality and work together with everyone who has a stake in an issue, such as what the Government was doing with its whole-of-government approach to risks.

And what if people were still bent on defending their turf?

He said: "Nag, nag and nag them to break down the silos. Nagging is an inherent skill of leadership."


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