Public service for a new age | Olav Kjørven

12 Mar 2013

ranger in Mongolia An example of effective public service, a joint UNDP-GEF programme in Mongolia provides rangers with motorcycles to monitor and collect information on wild habitats. (Photo: Eskender Debebe/UNDP)

Separated in 1965 from the Federation of Malaysia, with no natural resources other than its people, Singapore set out as a new nation-state a half-century ago. With early support from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), it built an increasingly prosperous society on the basis of farsighted economic policies, stable and capable institutions, and a public service globally renowned for its excellence.

Today, the city-state of Singapore ranks among the world’s wealthiest nations, with one of the most disciplined and efficient public sectors in the world.

While every nation must walk its own path, Singapore’s experience offers a number of lessons. This week it hosted the first Public Service Dialogue organized by UNDP’s new Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, which will function as a convener and connector of “thinker-practioners” around the globe who aspire to advance public service for sustainable human development.

In setting up this global square for advancing public service, Singapore is signaling both its readiness to share its unique experience as well as its openness to learn from others as the practice of public service – and governance more broadly speaking—faces new challenges and opportunities.

The Arab Spring highlighted the inadequacies of administrations out of touch with their citizens. Social media and information technologies have changed how people live, work, and interact. Citizens expect a greater say in matters affecting them, both by means of the ballot box and through public debate and dialogue about everything from the quality of existing services to the relevance of religious values in defining policy priorities.

In the My World survey, which UNDP supports as part of a global consultation on the world people want after the Millennium Development Goals deadline of 2015, voters across 189 countries rank “an honest and inclusive government” second out of 16 proposed changes that could advance people’s lives.

Public service is now about authorities and citizens collaborating and co-creating value so government runs smoothly, keeps the peace, delivers services to all, maintains law and order, and ensures fairness, equity, justice, and voice for all—all with accountability, humility, and heart.

At the same time, and driven by globalization, technological and demographic change, the demands on public service are becoming more complex. Inequality is rising within countries, and environmental pressures are mounting. More than ever before do we need “triple-win” policies that yield social, economic, and environmental dividends for all.

The need for knowledge and know-how on good public service practices—the most valuable of commodities in this new global context—is therefore at an all-time-high.

By learning from Singapore and other nations, more innovative, inclusive, and reinvigorated public services can decisively advance sustainable human development.

Talk to us: How can we best build honest and inclusive governments?

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