Mired In Bureaucracy

Posted by Jack Sim under Opinions on 22 August 2007

Singapore has a reputation for being a very interventionist government "with almost a big brother approach to running the island". Efficiency is our strength, creativity is not. Why?

The topic of bureaucracy is always guaranteed to stir up a lively debate in Singapore. Writing in the May/June 2007 issue of SALT, a publication of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, Mr Jack Sim, a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year and founder of the World Toilet Organisation, suggested that bureaucracy is stifling the culture of creativity in Singapore. Yet organisations such as the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy and the World Bank have ranked Singapore as being the least bureaucratic in Asia, if not the world. So is the Singapore Public Service really mired in bureaucracy? We present the two perspectives.

If you are an innovator and you require government help (it is easier if you don't), you may first need to prepare and train yourself to master "The Fine Art of Vomiting Blood". You know what I mean. But don't get angry with the bureaucrat. Here's why.

Singapore is a model of how a non-corrupt bureaucracy with good leadership can efficiently transform a developing country without any natural resources (except its citizenry) into the prosperous and modern city-state that it is today. As one of Asia's most important economic powerhouses, we are the envy of the world.

Yet, you soon realise that while efficiency is our strength, creativity is not. Our top leaders in government set the direction and the bureaucrats translate these directions into simplified boxes and game-rules that are fair to all and which are easy for everyone to understand because they adopt the common denominator.

Everything works well if events unfold according to the system. However, if an idea is innovative and original, it becomes a problem. In such cases, the bureaucrat's mind works something like this:

Step 1: Does this fall into any of my existing boxes? If Yes: Process. If No: Step 2

Step 2: Can I not handle this? Some options include giving FAQ answers: saying this is the wrong department; refer the matter to a superior who will then refer it to his superior who is usually not available; drain applicant's patience; and if the applicant persists and insists that I take action, go to Step 3.

Step 3: What will my boss think? And even if my boss agrees, what will his boss think? To be fair, we have to empathise with the bureaucrat in that we cannot expect him to work according to his organisation's mission. He works only on policies and procedures which have little built-in flexibility. And at the risk of sounding cynical, the bureaucrat is keenly aware that to keep his job, he can't rock the boat. When dealing with bureaucrats, lots of patience is needed. Otherwise, you should look for your own solution and not wait for their answers. This is where many people with great ideas give up.

The point is that you need to care enough about your country and the people not to care what the bureaucrats say or do to you. State the facts and do it for the sake of the nation's progress. Besides, bureaucrats like to support winners. Show them early signs of success, and they'll feel it's safer to support you.

Meanwhile, ministers and politicians tend to be mission driven, but they too are limited by their senior bureaucrats' interpretation and implementation of their intention into policies and procedures. The result is usually a compromise where the main body of problems is solved efficiently, while unique and innovative solutions and ideas get lost in the lalang.

As we do not have a culture of creativity, foreign talents fill in the gap. We pay (because we can afford to) the world's best brains as our consultants to design our IRs and monumental buildings and teach us best practices. Yes, the job gets done but we continue to lament that we lack local talents.

Innovators have to understand they might be partially-helped and partially-obstructed by bureaucrats. The ratio is directly proportionate to how innovative your idea is. The more out of the box your idea is, the more uncomfortable the bureaucrat becomes.

Ultimately, you have to survive by your own determination and belief. And tell yourself, at the end, that you survived despite the bureaucracy. There's just no point trying to judge bureaucrats as being good or bad. They are neither. In their personal life, they are just as creative as you or me. It's just that he is often frustrated: he may agree with the proposed innovation, but he is restricted from doing so. Once he arrives at the office, he follows procedure.

That said, surely there must be a better way to give the bureaucrats some space for innovation?

I would like to suggest "The Right to Mistakes" policy.

This practice by large French corporations assumes that the only person who doesn't make mistakes is the one who does nothing new. Perhaps, we should learn from the foreigners again. But the big wave has to be government-led.

Will this article create repercussions for me? No. It'll only make things better.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Challenges Mired In Bureaucracy?

This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of SALT, a publication of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.

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