If there is a group of people who would most have to apply strategic thinking in their work, it would be government officers. Government officers make decisions that affect many people and hence need to make the right decision every time. Because their policies are very visible, their work comes under the scrutiny of members of public who may be very vocal in bringing up obscure matters and making them very public. Hence a simple operational decision may become a very strategic one, commingling many issues about it and thrusting the government officer into unwanted limelight. It is for this reason that we choose "Strategic Thinking for Government Officers" as the inaugural topic in our "Strategic Thinking for..."Series.
The role of the government officer
Government officers have two major jobs: (1) recommend policies, and (2) execute them. Their specific functions will differ, of course. A procurement officer would either have to lay down the procurement policy within the organisation; or (s)he would have to execute it. A weapons staff officer would either have to research the different weapons platforms to deliver a tactical result proposing the right system, or (s)he would have to learn, or teach others, to use it. Either way, one major job is the policy itself, and another job is the execution of that policy.
Challenges for the government officer
When put in this manner, it is not difficult to execute a government officer's job. Yet, this is the easiest part of it. The challenges that a government officer faces are many. As outlined in the introduction, since the government officer's job is so public, it can sometimes attract the attention of people trying to make a political statement, unwittingly drawing this officer into the limelight. The following are some of the challenges that the officer might have to contend with:
Politics versus policies
Many people, especially in Singapore, confuse the government with the political party that leads the nation. They are not the same. Yet when the two become synonymous, this is where the confusion sets in. When the populace starts looking at government policies as fodder for politics, the government officer’s job becomes markedly more complex. She/He would have to tread more carefully, have to consider more angles, and not be seen as partisan.
Information management and security matters
When dealing with government issues, some things cannot be said for security reasons. This compounds complexity because there is a need, first, to address the issue, and second, to cloak it in a legitimate, less sensitive, frame. The element of reframing ultimately causes the substitution bias to set in and the officer may end up not doing what (s)he was supposed to do. This is compounded by the officer’s security clearance and the level of information (s)he is allowed to work with. By being kept in the dark on certain matters, yet required to come up with effective policies makes the officer’s job that much more complex.
Risk awareness and management
Government officers cannot speak as freely as others. Because of Point #2, there is always a need to be aware of slippages and after-thoughts. Not only is there a need to be aware of the risk, there is also a need to manage it well. As such, some government officers may not be able to “bring their work home” as much as others can. Which may be a good thing or not. It may result in the officer having to work longer hours in the office; but at least when (s)he is home, there is no “office talk”.
As the population becomes exposed to larger issues, as education levels increase and as social media opens up communication lines, anybody can comment on government policy, sometimes with little or no facts at all. This makes the role of the government officer more complex as (s)he navigates the sensitivities of the populace, some with very obscure needs. This becomes an issue when these “needs” are not adequately met by public policy and it gets blown out of proportion.
Forward thinking and instant gratification
Singapore is well known for its forward thinking. Sometime back, the Harvard Business Review identified Singapore as the most forward-thinking country in the world. This has been one of the greatest accolades on our civil service. Government officers therefore work to maintain this forward-thinking edge and propose policies that might have impact well into the future. Yet, this gets put paid when short-term thinkers challenge the policy, and demand changes. The ability to juxtapose between instant gratification in the face of being future focused is yet another aspect of a government officer’s job.
Former Assistant CEO of Infocomm Development Authority, James Kang, told FutureGov.asia that government officers “want to make sure the data is scrubbed of all errors before opening it up, but we must learn to let go.” That is the typical fixed mindset. (See article “Do you have a GROWTH mindset?”) Those who adopt a fixed mindset only tread when they have dotted all the “I”s and crossed all the “t”s. Unfortunately, in the increasingly volatile social space, where change happens much faster than the policy can be made for it, there is a need to adopt a learning mindset, to let the people answer the pressing questions. After all, there are more eyes out there than the government officer can muster, and they will quickly tell you what is working and what is not. So long as the officer knows how to engage them.
Because of the fear of failure caused by the fixed mindset, everybody will have an idea or two of how to go about doing something. As a government officer, it is difficult to anticipate who would want what. In addition, the Asian culture sometimes requires deference for authority and we are fearful of even broaching the subject with a higher-up, even if his email is in the intranet. In this setting, we will find that proposals go through many rounds of to-ing and fro-ing, sometimes ending up at where it all began. This sometimes slows the progress of the policy, putting paid to all the plans for implementation.
Applying strategic thinking
In this segment, we look at how a government officer can apply strategic thinking to come to the right decision. It is based on the 8 Steps of our Strategic Decision Making model, but with special emphasis on the key differentiators for the officer
The 8 Steps are summarised here:
We now uncover the how major elements of the 8-Step Formula can be applied by the government officer.
The intent of the government officer must be to propose policies that will achieve the stated intent of their organisation. Every officer must visit their organisation's website, go to the "About Us" page and understand their mission and their goal. All policies or decisions must fall within this, unless these have been reframed. So when the intent is unclear, they need to ask the Five Whys and converge clearly on what is to be delivered. (Read, "The Five Whys - it is still the best tool to identify strategic intent")
Thinking in time
Precedence is a good friend of the government officer. Because of the fixed mindset we spoke about earlier, the fear of failure would largely be mitigated if someone in the government had already done that and the impact was positive. Yet, the officer should not simply look for confirmation in preceding decisions because at times, (s)he needs to step up and create that precedence. Thinking in time can then be used to identify where past decisions and actions had not delivered and propose new ways of doing things.
Managing constraints is the government officer's way of life! Each of the challenges outlined earlier constitutes a constraint for the officer to add to his/her decision map, thereby creating complexity in the already complex proposal. But that is why he/she is in public service - to manage constraints. The successful government officer will be one who can consistently come up with the right decision every time in spite of those constraints!
System drivers & holistic options
Depending on the experience of the government officer, (s)he might not be able to identify the effective system and the underlying drivers. Hence, there is a need for government officers to seek counsel with more senior officers. It is imperative to have a T-shaped thought process (thinking with both breadth and depth) when dealing with govenment policies. Experience is the Number One contributor to this, and if an officer lacks this, (s)he needs to supplement with research and discussion. It is only when all drivers and interconnections have been identified that a holistic solution will present itself. It is this holistic option that will drive the way forward for the policy.
One of the keys of strategic thinking is the ability to think creatively. The hallmark of a great government officer is his/her creative talent. Looking at a situation and framing it in a different way would help uncover different options to address the strategic intent, especially when the populace is so adept at looking at the situation from a myriad of perspectives! The use of the 7 reframing techniques will make the difference for the government officer. (See 7 Perspectives to See your Situation Differently)
Balancing options with constraints
Research has shown that with more options, decision difficulty increases (Watch Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, TED 2005). The whole process up until now has been to increase the options open to the government officer so as to get at the right decision. The challenge is now to converge onto the best two options. By using the constraints as a means, the officer will identify the two best options, paving the way to finally converge on the right decision through bracketing.
Bracketing is the process of finding the limits of the options (see "If your future is uncertain, bracket it!"). This is done by articulating the assumptions for each of the two best options, and from there, to see the worst case and the best case scenarios. The worst case would be one where all the assumptions were wrong; and the best case would be when all the assumptions were correct. From these two ends - the brackets of the option – the officer can determine the risks of the option, coming up with mitigating sub-options to lessen them, and identifying "tripwires" to show up if the option was headed towards one scenario or another. This will effectively allow the officer to assess which of the two options was better in terms of variability and execution, and finally propose the right decision.
The need to be schooled
Strategic thinking has been very instrumental in helping government officers make the right decisions, and it will remain so. However, it is not enough to expect that officers would be able to pick up these skills organically. With the pace of change coming in a break-neck speed, and the need to see things from various different perspectives before proposing the solution, government officers will need to be schooled in the application of strategic thinking BEFORE they are expected to use it. Our Strategic Decision Making program is designed to achieve that.