Saturday, April 10, 2004

Call for civil service to take risks goes against its nature 

The issue of civil servants needing to take more risks and promote market-friendly policies reappeared in The Straits Times Forum today.

There were three letters published on the subject, all the writers giving advice on how the civil service can become more willing to take risks.

However, in my opinion, only one letter really hit the nail on its head. The writer stated that administrators frequently find "exceptional factors...that make a mess of the predetermined rule. And they find it difficult to resolve the conflict". The ability of the system to "trust and support administrators in their decisions" -- in other words, to empower administrators -- is therefore important. Unfortunately, "bureaucracies, by nature, are not created with trusting their functionaries in mind".

And therein lies the problem. Empowerment and risk-taking are the exact antithesis of civil service governance. Checks and balances are set up in government to reduce the potential for abuse of power. Those same checks and balances tend to hinder all risky decisions.

The easiest solution to the civil service's conservatism is simply to reduce the government's role in national affairs. If the civil service is market-naive, then reduce its influence on the market. Let the market take care of itself.

However, Singapore has a government which prides itself in its ability to solve all problems and is notoriously intrusive as a result. While there have been calls by several ministers and government officials for lighter regulation and greater self-dependency on the part of Singaporeans, things are not likely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, that means that the risk-averse culture of the civil service will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future too.


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