Thursday, April 01, 2004

Risk averse civil servants to form a committee to tackle problem 

When I first read in The Straits Times on Wednesday about Defence Minister Rear-Admiral (NS) Teo Chee Hean criticising public servants for being risk averse, lacking a good understanding of markets and not cooperating with other ministries, I asked myself, "Why is there a need for a government minister to publicly tell civil servants what to do? Shouldn't the government simply implement the policies and rules required to steer behaviour in the right direction?"

Of course, I quickly realised that the problem is that the government itself doesn't really know exactly how to effect the desired change. It is always easier to know the desired end result. Knowing how to get the result is another matter.

So in typical fashion, the government is tackling the problem by forming a committee called the Strategic Issues Group. Being a group, I wonder whether it will succumb to groupthink, and become itself risk averse.

The Straits Times followed up the subject today by asking several people for their response to the criticism. Some people reportedly simply cheered the move. The more insightful comments, I thought, came from businessman and MP Inderjit Singh, who pointed out that the reward and punishment system needs to be changed, and an anonymous civil servant, who said civil servants don't lack initiative, "but that people are made to conform to the system".

How true. Hopefully the Strategic Issues Group recognises the problem and finds the correct solution.


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