Motivations for an Agency of the Future (AoF)

The idea for an Agency of the Future was first mooted over tea with Meng Weng last week.  I have been concerned with the huge generational gap between our decision makers and idea generators.  I am also very jaded by the risk averseness that permeates our bureaucracy and stifles any meaningful innovation in policy formulation, interpretation and execution.  Over Singapore’s 40-odd years of independence, our bureaucracy has gone from a small team of bold visionaries with amazing execution abilities that never says die – true entrepreneurs who founded a nation – to a 110,000-odd strong Civil Service that has gotten so used to status quo and top-down leadership that it has deemed fit to leave most of the heavy brain lifting and risk taking to our Cabinet.

Blueprint for an Agency of the Future (AOF)

Swapping Rags to Riches for a Reduced Appetite for Risk

Yet, our experienced and senior civil servants did not get to where they are today by being completely risk averse.  They must have taken risks at various stages in their careers, lending their voices and iron rice bowls to opinions and policies that they believed passionately would work, for the good of our nation and its citizens.  But those were different days – those were days when Singapore was poorer, where the man on the street could not bring home as much bacon to put on their home dining table as they can today.  Those were tougher periods in Singapore’s history where more people within the establishment were willing to go out on a limb.  We had less to lose.

Today, we Singaporeans aren’t faring too poorly.  Almost everyone can afford a house, and more – it is not uncommon for middle-class housing agents to live in a HDB and invest in a condominium for rental yield.  The poor are decently taken care of by Singapore’s expansive social net policies.  And the rich, well, get richer.  Beyond our shores, the Singapore Miracle spreads far and wide, to the Land of Black Gold and the Land of Mao.  And if things couldn’t get any better, our ruling party continues to garner a vast majority of the population’s support come election time.  Draw a decision tree and you’ll quickly realise there’s too much at stake and that it’s too late in the careers of our experienced and senior civil servants’ for them to keep up with their younger and headier days of risk-taking in the name of change and progress.

Of course, if one looks hard enough, exceptions can always be found, although these statistical outliers continue to be heavily personality-driven.  Ngiam Tong Dow, Phillip Yeo, and in more recent times, Michael Yap are excellent examples of mavericks – people with unconventional viewpoints who are willing to challenge assumptions – that add much needed vitality and diversity to the service.  For a brief moment in history, the Civil Service undergoes mini Golden Ages as bold, innovative policies get formulated and translated into reality.  Yet, over time, these mavericks either quit the service, fall out of favour or stumble in the course of their crusade.  Risk aversion rules.

Singapore, Utopia?

The Singapore Skyline

I quote Sam Wilkin of Countryrisk.com in “Maintaining Singapore’s Miracle” dated 17 Aug ’04:

In a single generation, Singapore has leapt from dire poverty to become one of the richest countries on earth. This month Singapore has a new prime minister – only the third in its history. Can the miracle continue?

Where to, Singapore?  Will we go the way of the dodo bird, and be consigned to history books as yet another city state that has risen so dramatically, but ultimately lies fallen?  Or will we be able to uncover The One, seeing as to how we citizens of Singapore continually reject a socially engineered and “perfect” Singapore, and reset/revitalize Singapore’s bureaucracy to its prime program?

Architect: Hello Neo.

Neo: Who are you?

Architect: I am the Architect. I created the Matrix. I have been waiting for you. You have many questions and although the process has altered your consciousness you remain irrevocably human, ergo some of my answers you will understand and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question maybe the most pertinent you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.

Neo: Why am I here?

Architect: Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent in the programming of the matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden deciduously avoided it is not unexpected and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led you inexorably here?

Neo: You haven’t answered my question.

Excerpt between Neo and The Architect, The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

An Agent of Change, a Promise for the Future

The Chinese often say, “财富不过三代”.  As our political leadership enters its third generation (post-LKY and GCT), left unchecked, our risk-averse bureaucracy can potentially become the proverbial conservatives within an ailing but 4.48-million large patriarchal family business that is preventing visionaries within the family from effecting change quick enough.  Top-down leadership would probably still work to push good yet risky ideas through the bureaucracy, but would not be enough to appease the growing needs of a fast-growing intelligentsia hungry for nimble change.

An Agency of the Future (AoF) could be the One; a small flat organisation (never growing beyond 50 people) within the government itself that is beholden to no ministry or statutory but the Cabinet/Prime Minister’s Office itself, tasked with examining the future of Singapore.  A skunkworks operating with a start-up culture empowered to take risks in the form of pilot programmes and projects, as an outlet for creative policy formulation and execution.  A catchment for the best of ideas generated by patriotic Singaporeans, but quietly canned by an equally patriotic but risk-averse service.  An embodiment of the future of Singapore’s bureaucracy, that can really attract and retain our best and brightest.  A reset button for an overly-comfortable establishment.

I know the model works – I was part of a 8-strong skunkworks-like agency within the system for almost 2 years, attempting to achieve the impossible.  MINDEF has already implemented something akin to the AoF, through its Future Systems Directorate.  I believe our leaders should consider extending such a concept into the civil sector in a larger way, via an Agency of the Future.  Peter Schwartz calls it the DARPA for Governance.  I look forward to hearing your views on this idea.

Update: So it would appear this post sparked off a ‘lil interest, even though it was heavy on rhetoric and vision, and light on implementation. My heartfelt thanks goes to Peter Schwartz, who was also kind enough to send my crazy idea along to “senior people who might act on some of (my) thinking”.  I’ll remain hopeful for now, even though the response from a certain ‘senior person’ had seemed somewhat muted.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.