History has taught us that the public service needs to make changes, periodically, to adapt to changing circumstances. Hierarchies might expand or shrink, processes might be consolidated or distributed, but the public service should always focus on its core mission: to deliver services that meet community needs.
During one of the panel sessions at last week’s FutureGov Forum Singapore, someone from the audience asked this question: “How do you comment on governmental hierarchy in the age of cloud and social media? Is it here to stay?”
The question really challenged the panellists.
There are predictions that the improvement of technology will, while streamlining government processes, make our existing hierarchy redundant. It sounds, seemingly, very intuitive: if we could automate a lot of government processes and engage directly with citizens, why should we keep the hierarchy that seems hopelessly inefficient?
Somehow, this argument sounds a bit familiar, and so does its potential counter-argument.
In a meeting early last year, Kim Salkeld, Head of Hong Kong’s Government Efficiency Unit, mentioned that since the 1980s, the dominant sentiment had been that the government is hopelessly inefficient and it should give way to the private sector for service provision as much as possible, while introducing business culture into its environment.
However, outsourcing, while making government processes easier, often creates a situation where nobody is in control or prepared to be held accountable. This was clearly demonstrated in multiple mega-projects which have failed over the past decades.
We often hear from gurus who say that a particular practice ‘is definitely the right thing to do’ or ‘you must follow this direction”. Over the past two years, I have met a lot of officials who were not sure about cloud, open government or social media, but felt compelled to implement them because gurus told them to do so.
History has demonstrated to us that tactics or even rules were never (meant to be) constant – they are like pendula that swing back and forth, according to circumstances. What does not change for the civil service is its fundamental mission - which is to deliver services that meet the needs of the community.
If we talk about flat government structure, that of Han Dynasty China more than 2200 years ago was probably far flatter than most of its equivalents in the modern world. In addition, under that administrative structure, each bureaucrat had very clearly defined role and responsibilities.
The system functioned very well, and more importantly, it created decades of stability and prosperity in the society. However, it was not perpetual. The socio-economic development coupled with internal cracks in the system eventually meant that the flat structure was no longer suitable.
The regions became overly powerful, over-shadowing the central power and eventually overthrowing it, leading China into the famous “Romance of Three Kingdoms” period.
Naturally, after almost four centuries of chaos, the next empire that managed to re-unify the country, Tang, learnt from Han’s mistakes and introduced a more complicated bureaucratic system that limited local power.
If we look at now, while technology is giving governments amazing capabilities, it does not automatically solve the complex challenges governments are facing – it is not even able to prevent these challenges from becoming more complex.
A hierarchy, which might grow or shrink according to circumstances, is always necessary for the government to tackle these challenges. Just ask anyone who has had experience managing more than 10 people directly. In November 2008 I wrote on this blog comparing these historical trends to what we were experiencing in IT development.
In the same conversation, Salkeld stressed that government reform had to be constant. “We look into the long term, ten years, twenty years, but it does not mean that our journey will end there,” he said. “People need to understand that the public service has enduring value to the society. The public service needs to make sure it can deliver while the society it is serving changes.”
Some wisdom will never be outdated.
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