Responsible Innovation and Reaching a Dynamic Balance

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Jul 30, 2019
by Salzburg Global Seminar
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Responsible Innovation and Reaching a Dynamic Balance

Leading policymaker Aaron Maniam analyzes Singapore’s approach toward innovation and digitalization Aaron Maniam at Salzburg Global Seminar

“There’s a responsibility to the now… in terms of the current system and how it functions. There’s a responsibility to the future in terms of innovation, and there’s a responsibility to what could be better in terms of stewardship… I think we need to have all three of those in dynamic balance with each other,” reflects Aaron Maniam on the role of public officers. A founding head of the Centre for Strategic Futures at the Prime Minister’s Office in Singapore, he has occupied several important positions in his country’s public administration.

“I found that in order to represent Singapore well, I had to understand the whole of our governance system, our ports, our education, the financial services we’ve got, our manufacturing, and make sure that I could represent that well to a whole range of different people,” Maniam said.

Singapore, a small island city-state in Southeast Asia, gained independence in 1965 from Malaysia and has always been governed by the same political party, the People’s Action Party. The country went on to become one of the original Four Asian Tigers and has evolved into a highly developed market economy, supported by a public administration that seeks constant innovation.

Committed to continuing that modernization, Maniam attended the 2019 Annual Foresight Retreat of the Public Sector Strategy Network. While in Salzburg shared his recent experience working on the Smart Nation Program: “A really comprehensive way of taking on digital technology and seeing how it will affect the economy and businesses, society and citizens, as well as government itself…

“Those three prongs are what’s guiding our current transformation process. I would say it’s a situation where we will probably never arrive because the idea is that the minute you finish one set of transformations, there will be new tech out there that you need to adjust to.”

Technological improvements may be uneven in different areas of the state. However, he does not see this necessarily as a problem, since various agencies can present different requirements.

“What we’ve done is we’ve tried to make sure that digitization is meaningful to people in all the different agencies that they’re in… For some parts of the system, in the education system, for instance, using computers in schools, using apps for education might be really key for what they’re trying to do… Whereas if you’re at the foreign service, then actually a website that allows people to apply for visas, to report losses of passports might actually be sufficient…

“I think we are trying to leave it up to agencies to figure out what the best digitalization plan is for them, rather than force it down. But what we do do is give them broad guidelines, which is to say, ‘If you can use technology rather than manpower, do that. If you can move things from paper to digital, try and do that.’ And then, how they go about doing it is something that they actually work on themselves.”

The question arises on whether the replacement of humans by machines hurts the labor market. Is it easy to replace civil servants with robots and machines that can do their job better?

“Yes and no,” says Maniam. “We don’t think of it so much as a zero-sum game where if you bring in machines that people will definitely have to be replaced… We believe much more in augmentation, whereby when you bring a machine in, the mix of machines and humans generates new complex types of jobs that need to be done. The idea is that we move people to more complex jobs – kind of upgrade them rather than get rid of them.

“I’ve never seen any ministry that transforms digitally, where they’ve had to say ‘Okay, we’re gonna have to lay off people.’ They invariably find that they need more people than before, but the demands on those people are much, much greater… I think those who are willing can always be, will always be helped and supported to find ways for them to do new jobs…

“We’re kind of removing what I would call the 3D-type jobs – dirty, dangerous, and dreary… Routine-type jobs. We’re trying to eliminate those and make the jobs much more interesting, much more safe, and ones where there is actually value and skill in the individual’s role.”

But, as Maniam points out, improving the quality of public administration cannot rely on technological breakthroughs alone.

“High tech and high touch is really how we balance between both the technical and the human requirements of a government system. High tech means we need to use technology wherever possible to enable [us to] streamline and make more efficient the existing processes. High touch means we want to make sure that those processes are designed around actual citizen needs, and not just responding to what the bureaucrat thinks citizens might want. What that looks like is very different in different agencies.”


The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Agility for an Accelerating World: Can Governments Keep Up?, is part of the Public Sector Strategy Network. This program is supported by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, in partnership with Apolitical. Additional country and institutional partners include the Australian Government, the Government of Ireland, the Government of Canada's Impact and Innovation Unit, Civil Service College Singapore, and Nesta. More information on this network is available at the following link: https://bit.ly/2PMCt5m