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June 26th, 2018

The PS21 Office in Singapore

In 1995, Singapore’s public service under the management of Lim Siong Guan wanted to be ready for the challenges they were facing in the future and re-structured their working culture into a more entrepreneurial style that would be able to anticipate change.

The initiative

Lim was eager to develop and implement programmes that promoted increasing levels of innovation and positive change in public services, and enhanced their efficiency and responsiveness. To achieve this there had to be a paradigm shift in the mindset of public servants, so that they would be more receptive to continuous change, and “able to anticipate demands, influence developments, and find innovative ways to meet new challenges”.

The programme was called Public Service for the 21st Century (PS21) and was launched by the Singapore government on 5 May 1995. Although PS21 did not provide any funding for projects on the premise that the efficiency improvements would deliver cost savings which would justify the projects, it did assist project teams in requesting additional funding from the Ministry of Finance where necessary and appropriate. Most prominently, PS21 included a staff suggestion scheme (SSS), a means for civil servants to suggest ideas for public service improvement in any area of work, and the Work Improvement Teams (WITS) programme where civil service officers came together in small teams to collaborate on innovative projects. These two schemes were meant to “give people the opportunity to work out their own solutions and to offer their own ideas”. [2]

The challenge

Lim Siong Guan, who was then the Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of personnel and culture in the Singapore Civil Service, observed that the country's public service needed to be more responsive to, and anticipative of, change. Singapore was predicted to face difficult challenges in the future: economic competition, geopolitical shifts and demographic changes, as well as rapid changes in technology. [1] Lim was aware of the fact that the Singapore civil service had to change its perspective on change, and be ready for these challenges when they arise. “Singapore has no natural resources, we have nothing. We have to create something out of nothing in order to survive and succeed as a nation. And that something lay in creating a brand. It is a brand about trustworthiness, which is essential for promoting foreign investments, attracting talent and drawing tourists.” [2]

With the target of making the civil service the best it can be, Lim and his team of senior public sector leaders sought to transform the core culture and values of the civil service. He wanted to create a working environment that helped every civil servant develop their talents and abilities, and allowed them to contribute as much as they could towards the betterment of Singapore.  

The public impact

A study which covered the period from April to December 1999 showed that the WITS programme had developed 14,228 projects which generated savings of approximately EUR 40 million. The total cost savings from WITs by 2002 were estimated to be EUR 78 million. Further, within a single year, the SSS was estimated to have generated 520,000 suggestions for improvements from civil servants. The programme also developed PS21 service standards and guidelines which were used to support agencies' delivery of services.

This enhanced case study is part of our policymaker interview series. For the series, we talked to policymakers from across the world about their policies, policy-making and life in government. The interviewed protagonist for this case study is Lim Siong Guan, former Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office.

Stakeholder engagement

PS21 focused on civil servants in all levels of government. Hence, the permanent secretaries of other ministries were crucial in driving PS21. There was significant funding in the government's Public Service Division in the Prime Minister's Office, where the organizing team was based. They mostly looked at the initiative through the lenses of an HR directorate of the civil service while Lim wanted “PS21 to be about the culture, morale and motivation of employees across the whole public sector”. [2]

Thus, the projects was mainly driven by substantial partnerships between Lim as the head of the civil service of Singapore and several government ministries. For example, the Ministry of Law created Law PS21 as a committee which runs the annual PS21 ExCEL (Excellence through Continuous Enterprise and Learning) Awards. Each ministry submits its best proposals and projects and these projects are assessed based on three main criteria: innovativeness, impact, and alignment with the transformation process. A core team of permanent secretaries from the different government ministries moved this project forward.

There were also important external partnerships. PS21 partners with the Civil Service College to run training programmes for civil servants on communicating effectively with customers and coordinating with colleagues to deliver integrated services.

There was initial criticism from public agencies that the initiatives were too prescriptive, and PS21 has absorbed the negative feedback and given agencies more flexibility in delivery.

Political commitment

PS21 was launched and funded by the Singaporean government. The strong political commitment is demonstrated by government initiative and the commitment of political capital.

During the early stages of creating PS21, the head of the civil service Lim Siong Guan was the main driver and creator of the project. While designing the project, he was specifically reluctant to involve other politicians in the early stages of designing PS21 in the late 1990s. Mr Lim said: “I didn't want to involve any ministers because if I did, […] I would be passing accountability to them at a point where they could not be clear where PS21 is leading to.” [2] However, he later on received the blessing from the Prime Minister himself as he started to support the project after witnessing initial success.  

It was Lim's belief that delivering good service to the citizen is the most important thing in the civil service. In order to achieve this, the civil servants' needs had to be addressed in a way that recognized their contribution to the improvement of processes and the provision of services as a whole. “We want to give [civil servants] the opportunity to do a great job, and make it clear that if they did a great job, all credit belongs to you.”

Tay Choon Hong, director of PS21, saw Lim Siong Guan's ownership and enthusiasm central to PS21's success: “Lim took it upon himself as Head of the Civil Service to embody change. Year after year, through many platforms, Mr Lim reminded officers of the need to change and not just change for change's sake: its change for the purpose of making the public service much better.”

Public confidence

The People’s Action Party has been in power since 1959, but they seem to continue to enjoy good public support, gaining almost 70% of the vote in the 2015 general election.

Clarity of objectives

The original objectives were intentionally focused on a single concept: change. The objective was to make the civil service anticipate crisis more easily by being adaptable with an entrepreneurial culture at heart. Thus PS21 does not describe itself as a traditional policy or reform programme as such but as a ‘movement’ with “ambition to improve organisations, and public officers’ capacity to deliver citizen-centric policies and services.” [2] [3

Strength of evidence

Mr Lim’s previous experience at the Singapore’s Ministry of Defence was crucial in helping him to formulate and launch PS21. He was the permanent secretary Ministry of Defence of Singapore from 1981-1994. In that position, he sought to transform the operation of the Ministry and outdated practices, much of which were inherited from the British during their colonial period, into a more modern approach. “The norm in the military was that the commander is the commander, he gives an order and everybody just follows the order no matter what. […] [But] we want[ed] our military to be one where every soldier is a thinking soldier, every soldier can put in his proposals as to what makes sense and what doesn't make sense”. [2] Based on this idea, Mr. Lim together with the Chief of Defence Force created an environment where armed forces personnel were able to voice their ideas for improvement and at the same time produced more proactive soldiers.  This provided a good guiding experience and confidence in launching PS21.


Since the start of the project, PS21 has not faced a problem of not having enough financial resources to drive the programmes to success. It has been observed that, even during times of crisis such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, the overall government budget for training civil servants at the Civil Service College in Singapore remained healthy. In 2011 alone, the Singapore government spent 24.6 Million S$ for the development of training and enhancement programmes under the PS21 initiative at the civil service college.[4]

However, more importantly, PS21's objective was to change the working culture of the public service in Singapore to provide better services and build a capable workforce that is able to innovate. Lim was prone to give lectures at the Civil Service College to educate young civil servants in the PS21 spirit. It changed the way civil servants thought about their success. A culture of comparing different government units to preset targets was not encouraged; rather, a comparison of participation statistics in the various government agencies fostered a healthy sense of what is achievable through peer comparison. Lim noted: “We'll just publish […] what all the ministries are achieving and you decide for yourself whether you want to be average, above average, or below average.” [2]


The PS21 initiative had a structured mechanism in place; PS21 committees were set up at every level of the public service and each ministry had its own PS21 committee chaired by the ministry's permanent secretary. The programme's objectives were delivered by officials with relevant experience who understood their context. Each PS21 committee comprised four functional committees, which address the four broad areas of the PS21 movement.

Suggestions that were handed in by civil servants were directly assessed by the immediate supervisors of the officer and the SSS programme specifically wanted everyone in the civil service to offer suggestions on a continuing basis. There was a new environment created where ideas in the middle and lower management levels were welcome and were not seen by the manager as creating unnecessary work.

This was a complete change of the way suggestions used to be managed. Previously, the Ministry of Finance centrally administered the suggestions scheme. However, “[we] now needed a system that could cater to a minimum of 120,000 suggestions per year [as meaning at least one suggestion from every civil servant]. No system centrally run by the Ministry of Finance can ever cope with such numbers”. [2]


PS21 has specific metrics for measuring impact, which are evaluated on the basis of internal surveys and research. Yet there is no pressure put on individuals to be more effective by setting specific goals, which creates a relaxed atmosphere. The ministries “measure the number of suggestions that come up […] according to what [is] declared”. This is then divided by the number of employees in the division to create metrics you can compare with how other government units are achieving, with no value judgement on whether it is a good or bad achievement. With this method, PS21 looks at participation rates of individuals and at suggestions that are handed in while leaving individual agencies to decide whether they should be doing better.


Efforts were made to coordinate the actors and align the perspective; there was a common feeling among civil servants that change is necessary.

PS21 faced criticism from public agencies for being too prescriptive and authoritarian by making participation among all civil servants mandatory. However Lim withstood this criticism and held that: “It worked because [the] whole system was devised to help those civil servants who have ideas and want to bring about improvement, to do so.  Thus, if they put in a suggestion, they will get a response as to whether the suggestion is accepted. And they will be told why any suggestion is not accepted. They will know that they can revise their suggestion and that their improved suggestion will be considered seriously.” [2]

Acknowledging the limitations of the initial top-down driven approach, Tay Choon Hong, maintains that making participation mandatory at the beginning was a necessary “shock to the system”, and helped civil servants to develop the necessary new mindset. PS21's alignment with the Civil Service College was very helpful to the success of the project.

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