Friday, November 2, 2012

How the Singapore government cope with complexity

There was an interesting article in Mckinsey Quarterly recently; not a very long article, just a few pages.  It was written by Peter Ho who was the head of civil service of Singapore, and then the senior advisor of the Centre of Strategic Futures of Singapore.  His specialized area is how government could cope with the complexity of the present world situation.  I think this is something modern government should learn from Singapore.  The approach transcends culture, economics and politics.

The underlying awareness is the understanding of the world trend towards complexity.   Black swans and sudden disruptions to current situation now occur more often.  The challenge to modern government is how to respond to them quickly and effectively.

The approach is quite simple, but requires a change of mindset.  First, there is the whole-of-government approach.  Many new problems are complex and transverse many specialized areas.   Such multiple-dimension issues require the coming together of agencies both within and outside the government, pooling their knowledge and talent together.  However, governments tend to optimize at the departmental level rather than organization level.  Departments tend to reward people for contribution to the agencies rather than to the whole-of-government.  The change of mindset has been a major initiative of the Singapore civil service.

oodaFacing a very complex environment, government should develop the capability to be adaptive, emergent, and be able to navigate situation of multi-causality and ambiguity.  The Singapore adopts the OODA model: observe, orientate, decide, act.  The tools used are scenario planning, policy gaming and horizon scanning.  Risk management is an major initiative.  The framework should include risk identification and assessment at strategic level, risk indicators, resource mobilization and behaviour change.

In the face of complexity, the organization of the government should be resilient to strategic shocks.  To be resilient, the organization must go beyond efficiency.  A lean system which focuses on efficiency may not have the capacity to cope with unexpected shocks nor to plan for the uncertain future.  Instead of having a bulky bureaucracy of redundant resources, government could develop a dedicated small unit for resilience to change.  It should be equipped with special skill set not only for dealing with short term volatility and crises, but the ability to think about the future systematically.  To this end, the Singapore government set up the Centre for Strategic Futures.  It is a catalyst for strategic change in the government and her agencies.

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