1. When governments reform, they have four things foremost in mind. They want to provide better quality services at lesser cost to them and at affordable prices to citizens. They want to create an environment that is business-friendly.
2. Governments also want their bureaucrats to be customer-centric rather than self-serving “little napoleons”. And, in their reform agenda, governments aim to improve the structures, systems and processes so that government is nimble enough to be responsive to societal needs.
3. These intentions are noble and pertinent. They are also important as their realisation will ensure citizens’ well-being, global competitiveness and, consequently, national prosperity.
4. Bureaucratic bashing and public dissatisfaction over public services, including the litany of financial mismanagement of government departments, seem to suggest that all is not well on the reforming front.
5. True, to paraphrase Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the public service has promises to keep and miles to go before it can sleep.
6. Notwithstanding, one must agree, however grudgingly, that our public service has come a long way in improving its performance since the start of its reforms in the 1960s.
7. Catapulting to the coveted position of 12th in the 2012 World Bank ranking (from 23rd position last year) as the most competitive nation for doing business is partial testimony of the enormous strides the public service has taken to improve its services.
8. Innovative methods to simplify work processes, update regulations and eliminate red tape have resulted in one-day approvals to start a business, register a company, property title or land transfer, one-hour issuance of passports and quicker processing time for many other applications for public service are a further testimony to an invigorated public service.
9. The public service has not shied from embracing technology either. It renders a third (2,200 of over 7,000) of its services online.
10. Indeed, reform of government has been the clarion call and bulwark of all governments against increasing, and often vocal, consumerism within their societies. Accordingly, governments the world over have taken a two-tack approach to reform.
11. One is the across-the-board reform based on international practices. Developing countries, especially, have embarked upon reform after reform by riding on the wave of reform that ripples across public services across the world.
12. They have felt compelled to benchmark against international practices to redeem the trust of an increasingly sceptical society that seems resigned to mediocre public services. Best practices have the advantage of having proven their merit.
13. If they had worked before or elsewhere, they should do so again. As such, they serve to legitimise a public reform initiative, especially where they have been adapted to fit into the culture, circumstance and pressures of a particular public service environment.
14. Best practices of role-model First World countries have informed the nature and content of our government reforms. Privatisation and corporatisation initiatives have been informed by best practices in Britain.
15. Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand practices have inspired government performance management reform. We owe Japan for our quality control circles, quality management, productivity improvement and performance-related salary.
16. To Korea, we owe a debt for our land administration reforms. While the first approach to reform is to attack inefficiency government-wide through the adaptation of international best practices, the second tack to government reform is to focus resources to tackle particular problems of service delivery.
17. This problem-solving approach acknowledges that service-wide reforms have their strengths in bringing about overall improvements in services.
18. However, rather than spreading resources thinly across the service to pursue service-wide reform, quicker results could be obtained by focusing on improving areas of service delivery that have become pain points for the public.
19. Action plans are drawn and resources are allocated to achieve the desired outcomes.
20. Implementation plans with KPIs and specific performance targets enable effective evaluation and feedback and further improvements to the reform effort.
21. The Performance Management and Delivery Unit of the British public service and a similar unit (Pemandu) established by Prime Minister YAB Dato' Sri Najib Tun Razak to pursue the government and economic transformation programmes are instances of reforms with specific problems to address.
22. So too are the efforts of Pemudah (Business Facilitation Committee) that seeks to eliminate red tape in government.
23. In addressing the specific concerns of the public, these problem-solving reforms have specifically courted greater citizen and business participation in the reform agenda.
24. Problem-solving laboratories of the government transformation programme have roped in relevant departments to the reform effort.
25. Regardless of its approach, there are four lessons to be learnt from the Malaysian experience in government reform. First, government reform is not an option.
26. In this world of increasing consumerism, reform is a necessity to ensure citizen happiness by meeting their needs adequately. And in meeting the needs of business, the Government can ensure global competitiveness and national prosperity.
27. Second, the pressure for reform must be constant and unrelenting. Buffeting the public service with one reform after another in a peristaltic fashion, past reforms have kept the reform agenda alive.
28. That impact must be attributed not only to the scale of the reform but also to the amount of resources put into it. The impact of the reforms must also be ascribed to the persistence and tenacity of the public service to stick with the reforms.
29. Third, it is crucial to pinpoint the areas of reform that will have the highest impact upon service delivery. In this exercise, the public will have to be brought on board.
30. They should have a voice in determining the problem, suggesting policy alternatives and judging reform success. Such consultation will provide context to the reform effort and fortify public trust in the Government.
31. The latter will serve as a psychological boost to further accelerate the reform agenda. Fourth, to ensure that the reform gains traction across the public service, there must be service-wide consultation on the reform effort.
32. That will ensure that the reform is rowed along its course by the combined strength of all parties concerned.