On the football field, everyone wants to play the striker. The striker is the scorer of goals, the winner of games, and the position that offers the greatest chance for glory. Very few people, on the other hand, aspire to play the role of the goalkeeper. The job of the goalkeeper is often regarded as a thankless one. The goalkeeper is the guardian against disaster. If he’s doing his job right, few would notice. But should he falter - or worse, falter continuously! - he will bear the brunt of the blame.
There are two matrices of assignment here: the assignment of responsibility, and the assignment of blame (I use it loosely to include even positive contribution). The first is objective while the latter deals with perception. In an ideal state, the two matrices ought to be one and the same, but it seldom is so.
The gap between these two is perceptibly large when we look at massively public-serving roles, primarily that of government or providers of public utilities. It doesn’t take a genius to see that short to medium-term public perception of public servants follow the goalkeeper model.
The loudest and most immediate public response to national crises have traditionally been “off with his head”, insisting that the person on the top take the blame and resign. It is not entirely unreasonable, but it may not be the most beneficial of responses. We need only look at many countries still suffering from endemic corruption despite many changes at the top. The assignment of blame is emotional and often driven by anger. It seldom solves any real problems.
When the public seems overly trigger-happy with assigning blame, there is a natural reaction from the public service. The operating environment within the public service clams up and the appetite for risk is reduced (there has never been much of an appetite to begin with, I can attest to that). A healthy appetite for risk is essential for innovation.
Why then, do you think that public service operators like SMRT speak of using social media as some esoteric, obscure art that requires rocket scientists and brain surgeons? Or why do you think the government seems slow to open up to more collaborative and transparent ways of decision making? It is because of a deep-seated fear that the public will come down hard on any mistakes made, real or perceived, so it is easier to perpetuate the status quo. Taking chances means a possibility of failure.
We need to be more objective about our response to failures.
When Minister of Transport Lui Tuck Yew said that he needed to investigate if the two lapses in our public train networks were symptomatic of a systemic problem or isolated incidences, the more vocal online voices among us blared, “of course it is a systemic problem!”. Without information on whether scheduled maintenance was carried out on par with international standards, or whether SMRT was operationally deficient, we assumed that it was common sense that bore no need for investigation, and our prescribed immediate response was to fire the CEO who made over a million dollars last year.
After we allow our emotions to subside, we need to ask ourselves if the CEO’s pay is directly related to the incidents, and whether her removal solves any problems. It is an evolutionary process of our maturation as citizens, but I believe it is time we develop a more robust spectrum of responses to crises.
We should be able to look at a problem and ask the right questions: how did this come about, where sufficient safeguards put in place etc. It is through careful study that we can resolve public issues.
I’ve been in the public service for a number of years now, and those of you who know me know that I’m in it because I’ve chosen to devote my energies to better working relationships between citizens and government. There are more like me - many more - who are passionate about serving others, and we need the support of the people we serve.
We need you to believe that we want to be the best at our work, like any other person in any other job. We need you to put aside the stereotype that we are in the public service because we are incompetent of holding down a private sector job; or that we work less than folks in other sectors.
Because if enough people believe it to be true, the public service will be unable to attract the right type of people to serve. Because if we insist on stringing people up to dry every time a mistake is made, very short-term painless solutions will be chosen over long-term visionary strokes that may incur some immediate pain.
Ultimately, we need to work together because there is no line between a public servant and a citizen. The two positions should be one and the same.