Olav Kjørven: First Public Service Dialogue of the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, Singapore

Mar 5, 2013

Salutations to Ambassador Vanu Menon, Ambassador Tommy Koh, Distinguished Scholars and my colleagues from UNDP.

I am delighted to be with you in Singapore today for the first public service dialogue of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Global Center for Public Service Excellence.

Our task here today is to deliberate and deepen the focus of this new Centre’s work under the two broad themes of inequality and sustainability at a time when it is clear that knowledge and know-how are the most valuable of global commodities.

UNDP’s upcoming Human Development Report points out that harnessing the wealth of knowledge, expertize and development thinking from more and more diverse sources will require new institutions, and that such institutions should help to build understanding on why and how policy decisions taken in one place can inform or have substantial impact on those taken in another.

This, I anticipate, will be a calling card of our new Centre in the years to come, and it could not be at a more fascinating time.
The Human Development Report sets out that, for the first time in 150 years, the combined output of the world’s three leading economies, Brazil, China and India, is about equal to the combined GDP of the longstanding industrial powers of the North: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom. This is a shift with far-reaching implications for people’s lives.

The Report also argues, however, that economic growth does not automatically translate into greater human development progress; that the governance structures to which we have become accustomed do not reflect the new economic and geopolitical environment; and that the path ahead should be paved with transparency, accountability, participation and innovation.

This is a moment, therefore, for reflection and reinvention. We must figure out how to build this road as we walk it.

A practical first step is to look to public service.

Public service is at the core of good governance and good government. An efficient civil service, a functioning services delivery system, a fair and equitable justice system, a system that upholds the rule of law and such other building blocks are the key to effective and performing nations.

In some countries this is taken for granted; in others, public service is not yet at the level where it can rightly stand as foundations of government and the first port of call for citizens. There is much to be learned and shared among and between countries about effective and responsive public services. UNDP is committed to this learning about and to sharing these experiences.

We know that the nature of the public service is changing.

As the New Synthesis Project, in which Singapore has been a lead player, says, it is no longer about the government administering citizens through the instrument of the public service.

It is about governments and citizens getting together to solve complex problems, co-creating value, and collaborating to run government smoothly, keep the peace, deliver services, maintain law and order and ensure fairness, equity and justice.

The 'Arab Spring' highlighted the inadequacies of administrations out of touch with their citizens. The public service of the present day is responsive, in touch with and working with people to address their concerns. It needs to cross boundaries, reach out to civic groups and the private sector to co-address emerging challenges.

The demands made on the public service are becoming more complex.

Allow me to illustrate with three examples:

a.    Rising inequalities within countries: As the gaps among developed and developing countries are closing, we are seeing a toxic rise in inequalities within countries. Rural areas are getting left behind with 80% of the world’s GDP value now coming from urban areas.

Similarly, most countries are seeing the emergence of pockets of affluence while at the same time, remote areas often inhabited by minority populations or indigenous and ethnic groups, are falling behind.

Likewise, social inequities are on the rise. Urban populations have much better access to health and educational opportunities than rural areas. This will perpetuate structural inequalities across generations.

Women have less educational opportunities than men, are disproportionately impacted by social and family violence, and do not have the same voice or participation as men in the governing institutions or decision-making processes that take decisions about their and their families’ future.  
At the same time, evidence shows that building equal opportunities for women into a new political order can affect the trajectory of economic growth and social policy.

This message came through strongly in the results of a Global Thematic Consultation on Inequality, the final meeting of which I joined in Copenhagen two weeks ago.

As part of its outcome, it stated that political inequalities, including deficits in opportunities for participation at community level, are a significant cause of persistent structural inequalities, reinforcing inequalities in all other domains. The Leaders recommended a series of targets for state accountability, including:

a.    state accountability for the implementation of measures to ensure the informed participation of marginalized people at all levels of the administration, including at the decentralized level;

b.    state accountability for legal, policy and institutional guarantees for equal access to justice, and for the implementation of special measures to address shortcomings.

c.    The implementation of legislation providing for transparent corporate governance and accountability, including but not limited to transparency in revenue payments and in collection and publication of relevant environmental information.

d.    And time-bound requirements for the strengthening of data collection and dissemination of disaggregated information.

This consultation is one of 11 global thematic consultations currently underway on the World we Want after the current global development agenda, captured by the Millennium Development Goals, reaches its deadline in 2015. Other areas covered include demographics, growth and employment, and health. This dialogues are taking place alongside nearly 100 national consultations in developing countries, and a global dialogue that leverages an online, phone and offline survey called ‘My World’, created by UNDP and partners, which asks those surveyed to identify the things they think would bring about the most change for good in their lives.

All the material and insight gathered will be synthesized and made available in raw format online to inform world leaders and negotiators.

b.    Which leads me to my second illustration of how things are different today: the impact of information technologies and social media on citizen’s participation

What I find fascinating about the My World survey right now is that people’s second choice across the board for what is most important to them of the 16 choices provided is “an honest and effective government”. [The first choice is consistently education, and the third better healthcare.]

The internet and social media have the nature of public service, both in terms of what they provide, and what is expected of them.

Citizens are now constantly engaged in the business of government through widespread access to information, through feedback channels accorded through social media, through real-time monitoring and reporting using cellphone technology.

This has created many opportunities.

It has also challenged public services to be accountable for their actions, make transparent decisions, and be inclusive in their choices of trade-offs and prioritization.

Overall, the need for knowledge, the need for know-how and the need to know what is happening on some of these issues is at an all-time-high.

c.    My third illustration, then, is in the context of global public goods and sustainability.
As climate change, demographic transitions, migration, urbanization and similar phenomena begin to present unprecedented complexity in policy and practice around the world, the public services are increasingly challenged by issues of policy making that cut across sectors and actors.

For example, climate change requires negotiated settlements between producers and consumers, industry and conservationists, the transportation sector and agriculturalists.

Migration and changing demographics challenge the public service to address issues of citizen security and peaceful co-existence among co-located or rapidly mixing ethnic and religious communities, often also differentiated by income and occupational profile.

Similarly, while public services are confronted by issues of ageing populations and the need for social safety nets, they are at the same time witnessing youth bulges and the challenge of widespread employment for younger people.

These three issues: inequality, participation through ICT and social media, and sustainability, speak to the need for a new and as yet not fully defined relationship between the public service and the people it serves.

That relationship needs to be grounded in a whole-of-government mentality, where the public service, cuts across and connects ministries and sectors to advance ‘triple-win’ decision-making with economic, social and environmental dividends, not trade-offs.

Brazil, which has struggled with some of the world’s worst inequality, has made huge progress on citizen participation in budgeting and national planning – influencing policy and resources - since the adoption of a new constitution in 1988.

In 1990 in Chile, after almost seventeen years of military dictatorship, the ruling center-left coalition led a successful transition and brokered important bipartisan agreements on key economic and governance issues.

My favorite story is that of the reform of the Singapore prison system. Through the decade of the 90s, Singapore changed its prison system from one that was focused on imprisoning criminals, to one that involved rehabilitation of prison inmates as productive members of society by imparting technical and life skills, working with communities to be more accepting of former inmates, and psychological and behavioral rehabilitation of the former inmates. This I understand has been a very successful initiative, and also proven to be a good antidote to overcrowding of prisons.   This is an elegant example of a modern public service moving from a paradigm of purely efficient administrative results, to one that worked with citizens, people and communities to create societal results.

Which brings me to UNDP’s contribution, and our vision for the Global Centre for Public Excellence in Singapore.

UNDP is committed to helping its partner countries grapple with the types of issues I have illustrated. We will do this by digging into the inventories of our own knowledge and experience, but more importantly, by capturing, codifying, sharing what is being researched, studied and implemented by different governments, think tanks, scholars, and practitioners, and making these experiences broadly available.

UNDP is increasingly the connector, the convener of knowledge and best practice, a ‘crossroads’ of excellence, where those who seek examples of excellence meet with the best knowledge globally available.

And where challenges are new and complex, and where solutions do not yet exist in historical inventories, UNDP will provide the platforms for co-created solutions.

We will bring together the best minds for collaborative action, and by the joint pursuit of innovative ideas and solutions.

This is work we at UNDP are familiar with. As you know, the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence joins UNDP’s other Global centres as incubators for policy research and ideas that can be harnessed shared.

Last November, for example, UNDP’s Oslo Governance Center organized a very unique gathering of representatives of three countries who had experienced transition in the 1980’s – Brazil, Chile and Indonesia – to identify key challenges and opportunities for people in the midst of the ongoing transitions in Egypt, Myanmar and Tunisia.

The choice of these countries was informed by the fact that they share a number of features, in particular a political economic situation with destabilizing social consequences, a military with a major political role, and a society fraught with major inequalities both economically and socially.

The diversity of the participants, including practitioners, civil society actors, policy makers, military leaders, researchers and representatives from both multilateral and bilateral organizations, ensured a vibrant exchange of ideas across nations and regions, focusing in on issues of inclusiveness and accountability.

This kind of vibrant dialogue – on and offline – speaks to the ambitious agenda I want us to set for this Global Centre for Public Service Excellence together with the Government of Singapore.

Indeed, Singapore is at the cutting edge of the public services.

Not only does it have an exemplary public service that countries around the world admire and wish to learn from, but also it is putting a lot of thought into the role, the nature, and the performance metrics of the public service in the new era, particularly touching on the emerging issues I described earlier.

In UNDP, we have kept ourselves up to date with the work that is coming out of the universities and think tanks in Singapore, as well as the rich experiences of the Government of Singapore.

A little over two years ago, we commissioned a study by Dr. NC Saxena, who I am delighted could join us here today, to look at the public service in Singapore and the role it played in the amazing development story of this country.

The study eventually became a book, which is now in high demand by UNDP’s partners around the world. [We have the book available for you here to take with you should you wish.]

It was released by the Singaporean Government at approximately the same time as which our discussions with the Government began to give shape to this idea of a joint center of excellence. This idea has been on the drawing boards for the past two years and I am truly delighted to see it come into fruition.

Looking ahead I see the Center as a think tank, engaging on and with partners around the very best know-how on the art and craft of public service; a convening ground for scholars; and a hub that can present, harness and share the essence of this knowledge to UNDP’s programme countries around the world.

Our mission today, therefore, in what will be the first of a series of such policy dialogues, is quite straightforward.

It is to welcome your knowledge, your insight, your depth of expertise and your commitment to your craft in helping us to build the Centre’s future path.

And I hope you will be reflective, deliberative, insightful and communicative as you do so!

I would like to again thank our Singaporean colleagues, counterparts and hosts without whom this centre would not be possible, as well as all the UNDP colleagues who have worked so hard to bring this about.

We are fellow-travelers down this new path, on what promises to be a fascinating journey.

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